Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 27 of 60

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Severus' good mood had lasted most of the night; he'd slept deeply and dreamlessly for quite a long time, at least by his standards, and had woken up still feeling pretty pleased with the world. That had lasted until he realised he would be seeing Hermione again this morning, at which point he was disgusted to find that he had begun to worry. That was stupid, they'd been doing this routine for about a year and a half now. It didn't mean it wasn't true, though.

He wished Dilys hadn't said anything. He'd been happier not knowing, frankly, because now he was going to drive himself mad for weeks forensically analysing everything she said or did, trying to discover the truth of the matter. Dilys had almost certainly been telling the truth – had it been peacetime he wouldn't have put it past her to make it up for her own amusement, but with things so serious he was pretty sure she wouldn't have said anything if it wasn't true – but he would need to see some clear evidence himself before he would allow himself to truly believe it.

And if it was true, what then? He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck; he hated to admit it even to himself, but he didn't know how to do this. It had been easier when he was younger; by the time he had realised how he felt about Lily, he had been old enough to realise that she didn't feel the same, so he hadn't needed to do anything except keep his mouth shut. He could talk to women easily enough, that wasn't a problem, but he'd never tried to flirt with anyone who actually knew him and he'd never tried to flirt with anyone who was sober. It was also worth reminding himself that relationships between staff and students, consensual or otherwise, were forbidden – but so what? It wasn't as if Dumbledore would dare fire him. He'd never given a damn for social rules either. The real obstacle now was the fact that he had no idea what he was doing and was terrified of screwing up.

This is absolutely pathetic, he told himself ruefully. Most men felt like this when they were around fifteen, and generally by the time they were out of their teens they more or less knew what they were doing. Feeling like this at thirty seven was just sad. Apart from anything else, if Dilys was right then he had somehow – God alone knew how – managed to attract Hermione's interest without doing anything, so logically all he had to do was continue acting normally. That didn't seem terribly likely, since his normal attitude was either mocking sarcasm or bitter anger and as far as he knew she wasn't a masochist, but who was he to judge? He'd managed to fall for her despite everything, so there was no real reason why it shouldn't happen the other way around, right? Apart from the minor problems of his appearance and personality, anyway.

Severus almost laughed; his life really could not get any more insane. If he had a plan at all, it was to try to act like his usual self and keep his eyes open for any signs he might have missed up until now – he'd spent years watching everyone around him, he could usually spot when a woman was interested in a man long before anyone else noticed. If he did find evidence that she was interested in him, well, he'd have to worry about it then – in between everything else he had to worry about, of course. At least it wouldn't be difficult to keep it hidden, since apparently the only person who might know was Poppy. If the nurse hadn't said anything by now, Dilys was right, she never would; the mediwitch was no fool and wouldn't have hesitated if she had a problem.

He was thankful that Hermione knew he was practically a zombie in the mornings; he didn't have to speak to her or even look directly at her. That made it difficult to come to any conclusions about her feelings, of course, but it drastically reduced the chances of his embarrassing himself. He kept catching himself staring from the corner of his eye, but she didn't seem to have noticed, and by the time they were half way around the circuit he was too busy trying to breathe to worry about it too much – damnit, she was right, he wasn't fit enough for this any more.

Besides, he concluded somewhat unhappily as he tried to ease a stitch between strides, it probably wasn't a good idea to keep this up. It had been bothering him for months anyway... well, come on, by the time they finished their run she was slightly flushed and dishevelled and a little breathless, of course his thoughts were going to wander into inappropriate territory. And now... it was probably a bad idea to spend too much time alone with her. Better to avoid temptation until he'd sorted things out in his head and until he was more certain of what was going to happen at the end of the year. In any case, it was bloody embarrassing to find himself struggling to keep pace with her now.

That said, he had no intention of severing all contact with her outside Defence lessons. Dilys had been dead right about his destructive streak, but things had gone too far for that – he'd tried at Christmas and had only succeeded in making himself miserable. He was in too deep to break it off now, but he could avoid the worst awkwardness without really altering the time he could spend with her, surely.

By the time they reached the castle again, he was seriously out of breath and somewhat pissed off about it. He'd worked hard to maintain what physical fitness he could, and for the past couple of months he had been making a serious effort to look after himself properly; it was rather disheartening to find that it hadn't had much of an effect. Slumping against the wall by the door, he wiped his face wearily and sighed. "All right, Granger, you win."

"Sir?" she asked.

He shook his head. "You're right, this isn't doing me any good any more, much as it pains me to admit it. I think we should call it a day." Glancing up through the lank curtains of his hair, he studied her expression closely, spotting the clear flickers of disappointment and faint hurt as she bit her lip. Best to head off that misunderstanding quickly, before Dilys heard about it and arranged his ritual castration or something. Trying to force some humour into his rough early-morning voice, he added dryly, "I do have some pride, you know. Besides, we're at the end of the Easter holidays and I'm sure you'll want the extra time for totally unnecessary revision that you don't need to do."

All right, it wasn't much of a compliment, but it seemed to be enough to earn him at least a small smile. "I'm not that bad, you know."

"Your colour-coded revision timetables are the stuff of Hogwarts legend."

"Funny, sir." She sighed. "It's going to feel strange, not doing this every morning. I'm going to miss it."

That was annoyingly ambiguous. She could be referring to the exercise, or to the company. He could feel a headache forming and he was gloomily certain it was going to be the first of many where this young woman was concerned. "Yes," he agreed cautiously. "Still, there are some compensations. If I have mornings free to work, I may have more time in the evenings to oversee your training. And we still have to sort out time for you to practice the Wolfsbane."

As far as he could tell, she looked pleased, but this was Hermione Granger, the only student in the school who would be pleased at the notion of more lessons. Damnit, this was just confusing.

"Well, that's something, at least," she told him, sounding a bit brighter. "Did you speak to the Headmaster yesterday?"

He grinned, basking in the memory. "Oh, yes. He was... amusingly furious, and very shocked. Incidentally, he was left with the impression that I extorted the information from Mr Potter, rather than from you, so perhaps you and your friends should continue to reinforce that." Because if Dumbledore ever found out that he had any contact with Hermione beyond the Healing stuff... best not to think about it.

"Are you going to be in trouble for that, sir?"

She sounded genuinely worried, which pleased him. "What, for upsetting his precious Potter? Miss Granger, if I got in trouble with the Headmaster every time that happened, my teaching career would have been even less productive than it actually is."

She stifled a laugh, her eyes dancing for a moment. "I was being serious."

"I know. It'll be fine. The worst he can do is scold me, and after all these years I think I'm immune. Now be off with you."

It turned out that the worst the Headmaster could do was considerably more serious than a scolding. Snape had been busy that evening, and Hermione had been half-heartedly sparring with the boys when Dobby had shown up in the Room of Requirement asking Harry to go and see Dumbledore. Impulsively, she and Ron tagged along, wondering what he wanted to show them tonight.

The Headmaster didn't seem surprised to see them, smiling genially and conjuring two more chairs by his desk. "Good evening, all of you. Not training with Professor Snape tonight, I see?"

"No, sir," Harry replied easily; he was obviously at home here, comfortable with talking to Dumbledore, Hermione noted as she exchanged a glance with Ron. Hardly surprising given how often they sat and talked, but she would bet everything she owned that no other student in the school had this kind of relationship with the Headmaster. Harry had never wanted to be special or to be treated differently, but obviously this didn't count. Harry continued, "He said he was busy. We practice by ourselves a lot. What are we doing tonight? Have you found...?"

Dumbledore lifted his non-injured hand to cut him off, smiling. "No, no, not that, although I am certainly close to discovering one of the locations. No, actually tonight I wanted to talk to you about Professor Snape."

Hermione sat up straighter in her chair, a chill rippling down her spine as she scanned the paintings on the wall out of the corner of her eye. She couldn't see either Dilys or Phineas from where she sat; she hoped like hell at least one of them was in one of the frames behind her. This didn't sound good.

"Professor Snape? Why?" Harry asked blankly.

"I have noticed recently that the two of you seem to have finally set aside your differences at last. That is certainly wonderful to see, of course, but I can't help wondering why..." He left it hanging, and Harry grinned sheepishly.

"Um, well, it's quite difficult to explain, sir. I mean, he clearly doesn't like me, that hasn't changed, and I – don't really like him either, if I'm honest, but... well, we've spoken a few times in training sessions, and he's actually given me some good advice. I'm still not completely sure what's going on, but I know you trust him, and he does seem to be trying to help. Sometimes, at least."

"Ah... so he hasn't told you anything specific?"

Uh oh. This is bad. Hermione prayed that one of the friendly portraits could hear this; she couldn't think of a way to stop this conversation, or to somehow at least manage to give Snape a warning.

"About what, sir?"

"His motivation for doing what he does, perhaps? I wasn't sure if he would or not. It does partly concern you, after all."

"It does?" Harry asked, sounding bewildered. "Why? I mean – it's not about my dad, is it? I thought his debt was..."

"No, no, nothing like that. You see, Harry, when Professor Snape was a boy, there was another magical child living nearby, born of Muggle parents. They became friends before coming to Hogwarts, and remained very close for some years. So close, in fact, that even after their friendship ended, Professor Snape continued to keep track of her, and when he discovered that she and her family were in danger, he tried to protect her. His final attempt was to come to me; he changed sides for her safety."

Oh, fuck. Hermione cleared her throat uncertainly. "Sir, this sounds... a bit personal..." she said quietly, ignoring the part of her that wanted to start screaming don't you bloody dare.

"Yes, Miss Granger, but I think it is necessary," he replied, cutting her off.

Before she could say anything else, Harry asked, "What does this have to do with me, sir?"

Dumbledore looked at him gravely. "Her name was Lily Evans."

There was a long, frozen moment of silence, filled with tension so thick that it was hard to breathe. "...My mum?" Harry whispered in disbelief after a moment, and the Headmaster nodded, his eyes compassionate and sympathetic – Hermione found that she didn't believe the expression in those blue eyes any more. She felt sick and a little light headed; she couldn't have interfered if she had wanted to, because her mouth was dry and her feet felt rooted to the floor. You... utter bastard. I don't believe you actually just did that.

"I realise this is something of a shock for you, Harry, but I thought you should know why it is that Professor Snape is willing to risk so much for our side and why he dislikes you at the same time."

The next few minutes were somewhat blurred; Hermione elected to totally ignore the yelling in favour of stopping Harry from killing himself. It wasn't the first time she had gone down to the dungeons in a hurry, but she'd never done so while hanging on her friend's arm and trying desperately to calm him down, and it had taken everything she and Ron could do to drag him into one of the empty rooms and block the door.

"Harry, please, stop a moment so we can talk about this," she asked him breathlessly, gripping her wand; she'd hex him if she had to.

"No. I need to see him. To find out what... I need to see him."

"Why? It was a long time ago, Harry. Does it matter?"

"Does it – of course it matters, Hermione! How can you – how can you even ask that? Of course it matters! Why aren't you... I don't know, angry, or hurt, or – something? I mean..."

"I know exactly what you mean and if you say one more word about it I'll glue your jaws together," she replied grimly. "You never know who's listening in this place."

He shook his head impatiently as though dislodging a fly. "Whatever. Let me out."

"No way, mate," Ron told him, shaking his head. "Not until you've calmed down. I don't blame you for freaking out but you know Snape will kill you if you charge in on him in this mood. When you can talk without yelling, then we might let you out."

"Yeah? What if it was your mum? You'd be yelling!"

Ron stared at him for a moment. "Harry, if it was my mum, I'd be puking. Didn't need that image. Cheers. And yeah, you're right, if it was me I'd be yelling, and you'd be trying to calm me down. C'mon, mate, you're turning purple..."

"Shut up! Just... shut up, okay?"

Hermione's lower lip was bleeding, she noted distantly, feeling sick. This was a nightmare. The only way it could get any worse was if...

"What on earth is going on?" a familiar voice demanded from behind her, and she wanted to slam her head against the wall. Of course. Fuck. Slowly, she turned around.

Snape stood in the doorway, staring at the three of them quizzically; he looked faintly annoyed, but not much, and his dark eyes were a little sleepy. By the look of things, they had woken him up; there was a faint red crease on his cheek that made her suspect he had fallen asleep at his desk again, he wasn't wearing his robe and his frock coat was unbuttoned.

"Silencio," she said hastily, cutting Harry off before he had time to do more than take a deep breath. "Sorry, Professor, we were just leaving..." Don't babble, don't make him suspicious, just get Harry out and then find one of the portraits...

His eyes narrowed as he took in the scene; Harry looked furious, struggling against the Silencing charm. Ron had gone pale and looked like he would run if the only exit wasn't blocked. Hermione was doing her best to keep her expression neutral and was concentrating on fog with everything she had, but she knew she couldn't hope to fool him for long. Let it go, please, let it go...

"What is going on?" he repeated slowly.

Damn. Hermione bit her already sore and bloody lip and sighed. "Professor Dumbledore wanted to talk to us, sir," she said reluctantly. "He... he told Harry... well..." She floundered, trying to think of how to say it, as a look of suspicion entered the black depths of his eyes and his frown deepened.

A moment later magic flared as Harry broke the charm and yelled, "He told me about you and my mother!"

She couldn't take her eyes from Snape's face. He looked frozen, not even breathing, not a single muscle moving anywhere, but the colour drained from his cheeks as she watched and the expression in his eyes wasn't one she had ever seen before as he grew dangerously pale. Finally he said slowly in a voice that really didn't sound right, "He did what?" Hermione searched his face worriedly but his eyes were blank and unreadable.

"It's true?" Harry demanded shakily, staring at him incredulously. "You... and my mum?"

Snape actually laughed; Hermione thought it was one of the most horrifying sounds she had ever heard. "No, of course not. I never meant that much to her," he said hoarsely. "But I would have died for her. I damned near did." He drew a ragged, shaky breath, struggling to maintain some semblance of control over himself as his hands started to tremble. "Sometimes I wish I had," he whispered, more to himself than anyone else.

Harry stared around the room, looking rather lost, some of the anger fading into confusion. Ron caught his eyes and shrugged uneasily. "Don't look at me, mate. I dunno what to say. I'm as shocked as you are."

Harry continued staring around, before looking at Hermione, and she hesitated as the tension in the room increased, trying to decide what was the right thing to do. Finally she took a deep breath and said quietly, with a calmness she didn't feel, "I already knew."

That drew shocked exclamations from both her friends, but she was looking at Snape now, as he choked before giving her a look of pure unadulterated horror. "...What?" he whispered thickly, visibly trembling; he was chalk-white now, and his eyes were wider than before as his shields started to slip.

"I already knew," she repeated softly, trying to tell him with her eyes that it didn't matter, his pain making her chest ache and her eyes sting. "I've known for a while."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Harry yelled; the moment of shock hadn't lasted long, and now his temper had risen again.

Hermione turned away from Snape and looked at her best friend, trying to keep her voice gentle. "Because it's none of our business, Harry; mine or yours. It was a long time ago. I trusted him before I knew, and you never will completely, so what difference does it make now? We didn't need to know."

"Well, I did!"

"Why, Harry?" she asked, trying to stop her voice shaking; she couldn't look at Snape again because she was certain she would start crying. "What's different now that you know? He was your mother's friend before she even started going out with your father, long before you were born. It's nothing to do with you, or me, or Ron, or anyone else in the Order."

"That's... I..." Harry was floundering now, the intelligent part of him warring with the impulsive tempestuous side as he realised that he actually didn't have a reason to be this angry. "He..."

"Easy, Harry," Ron said quietly, going to stand beside his friend. "Calm down a bit, okay? Breathe."

"Why are you so calm? Don't you think it's – it's –"

"Weird?" Ron suggested, trying to force a grin, trying to lighten the mood. "A bit, maybe. But it's definitely nothing to do with me, is it? I mean, I can sort of understand why you'd want to know, and Hermione..." He trailed off when she shook her head frantically, and floundered for a moment before shrugging. "Well, I guess she already knew, so it doesn't really matter. But it's got nothing to do with me. I never really trusted Professor Snape either, but I kind of figured that the higher ups knew what they were on about." He shrugged again, uneasily. "I dunno, mate... does it matter? He's trying to keep you safe because of your mum. There's worse reasons, right?"

"But..." he started weakly, the anger fading to confusion. He turned to stare at Snape again; uncertainly, Hermione followed his gaze and found Snape staring back at her – or, rather, through her. His eyes were unfocused and whatever he was seeing was clearly painful to look at; he was still dangerously pale and looked almost on the verge of fainting.

A moment later someone cleared their throat behind him, and a bad situation became ten times worse as Dumbledore appeared. "Is everything all right?" he asked, and Hermione's nails bit into her hands as she found herself fighting the twin urges to either hit him or curse him, glaring venomously at the old man.

Very slowly, Snape turned, moving stiffly; his blank expression didn't alter, but they could all see the devastating storm in his eyes now as his shields disintegrated further. "...You bastard, Dumbledore," he whispered hoarsely, his voice thick with an old, old pain. "You utter bastard. All I ever asked of you was that you never tell anyone. It's the only thing I have ever asked you for in all these years, and you couldn't even give me that much..."

"Severus..." the Headmaster began gently.

"Go to Hell."


"I said, get out." A flush finally restored some colour to his pale face as his eyes began to glitter strangely; he stared at his employer, unblinking, before turning to stare at the others without seeming to truly see them. "All of you, get out. Now." He was shaking now; the tremors looked horribly familiar to Hermione, but there was nothing she could do. He didn't want company, obviously, and right now it would do more damage to have someone hovering around, even her – possibly especially her. Something tingled across her skin, a semi-familiar coolness, and she realised he was on the edge of completely losing control.

"Come on," she said quietly, tugging Harry's arm. They didn't need telling twice, and it seemed Dumbledore knew the danger signs as well as he preceded them out of the room. Snape followed them out and turned away towards his quarters, still moving with that odd rigidity and stiffness despite his trembling, and darkness swallowed him almost immediately.

"That went well," Hermione observed coldly, sick with anger and fear. At least Dumbledore had the decency not to meet her eyes, as he murmured something about it being for the best before excusing himself. Harry seemed to have gone numb; she got him to Gryffindor Tower safely before turning him over to Ron and retreating to her warded bed and a chance to cry privately.

Hermione was in her dormitory later that night, curled up in bed and not even trying to go to sleep, when Phineas' voice demanded from the frame above her bed, "What happened earlier?"

"Is he all right?" she asked hoarsely; her head ached from crying and from worrying.

"No, he's definitely not all right," Dilys said quietly, joining the Slytherin in the frame. "He's spent the last several hours smashing things and screaming himself hoarse, as far as we can tell, but the picture frames were the first things he took out. I believe he was crying, too, which I haven't seen in more years than I can remember. And now it has gone worryingly quiet down there, but we can't get in to see him. What happened?"

"Oh, God, it was awful," Hermione whispered, sitting up and hugging her knees. "The Headmaster... he called Harry to his office tonight, and Ron and I went along, and he – he told Harry about Lily."

"He did what?"

She shook her head helplessly. "It was terrible. Harry went charging down to the dungeons – we couldn't stop him. Professor Snape heard us arguing and came out, and Harry yelled it at him, and... the look on his face..." Tears stung her eyes again.

"Shit," Dilys said flatly, exchanging a troubled glance with Phineas, before both portraits looked at her and she said more sharply, "You knew?"

Hermione nodded shakily. "I suspected last year, and I finally worked it out a while ago. I've known for ages."


She shrugged and tried to smile. "His feelings don't change mine. Much as I wish they did. It would be easier that way, but... it doesn't change anything."

"Well, that's something," Dilys muttered, before cursing again. "Shit. This could be enough to destroy him."

"How did Potter take it?" Phineas asked.

"God, I don't know. He's in shock more than anything. It wasn't what he was expecting to hear. I doubt he'll be ready to talk about it for a while – but he took it better than I thought, I suppose."

The portraits looked at each other again. "Should she go to him?" Dilys asked her companion finally.

Phineas frowned. "If it was anyone else, I would say yes. I don't believe he would argue, either, not now; he's in no fit state to protest. But tomorrow... no. I think it's best to leave him. He's quiet now, at least. If we watch him tomorrow, he should manage to get past the worst of it. Just pray that he isn't Summoned before he's found some stability again."

"When you've finished talking about me as though I'm not here," Hermione said pointedly, "maybe you could tell me if he's all right."

"Of course he's not all right," Phineas said irritably. "I fear Dumbledore may have gone too far this time. Severus has taken so much punishment over the years, but even he can't endure this. He could have ruined everything and driven his spy away for good..."

"Thank Merlin that the old fool doesn't know everything after all," Dilys muttered, before turning a piercing stare on the girl. "He doesn't know about you. Otherwise I'm sure he'd have found a way to destroy that by now as well, because for some reason he has never been able to refrain from poking at Severus until he snaps. It's almost a compulsion at times, to see how much he can make the poor man endure." She sighed. "I think Severus will be as fine as he can be, Hermione, after a day or so. But he is very close to the edge. I really don't know how much longer he can make himself survive. He can weather this crisis, I think, but the next one might finish him. Even he can only take so much before he stops wanting to keep fighting."

Hermione nodded soberly, well aware that time was running out for all of them. Determined not to cry again, she swallowed hard and sighed. "I suppose I'd better try and sleep, if I can. Tomorrow's going to be a hell of a day."

The portraits exchanged glances. "I'll warn Poppy in case he's done something foolish," Dilys said softly.

Phineas nodded grimly. "I believe I will ensure that the Headmaster does not benefit from a night's sleep. I want a word with him. Sleep well, Miss Granger, if you can. He's going to need you, even if he won't admit it."

I wish I was so certain, she thought tiredly as she curled up again, wishing once more for the comforting presence of her cat.

Severus woke up slumped on the floor in his office, feeling about as wretched as he had ever been. He had a pounding headache and raging thirst that paled beside the vice that seemed to be squeezing his throat and chest. Moving very slowly and unsteadily, he made his way through his rooms to survey the damage; he really didn't remember much of what had happened after they had left. He remembered leaving the room and hearing their footsteps fading and merging with the pounding in his ears, and then... nothing. Total, terrifying blackout.

He had smashed virtually every piece of furniture he had, he noted dully; a brief pang gripped him when he reached his bedroom and saw that he had destroyed his piano. Magic couldn't repair musical instruments for some reason, not properly; they never sounded the same afterwards. Not that it really mattered any more. The bathroom mirror was smashed, but enough shards remained to show him his reflection; he blinked slowly as he saw the blood smeared across his face and examined himself carefully. No, no wounds, which was quite surprising given the state he had been in, but he'd had a nosebleed at some point. In fact, he felt like he had had a seizure; the headache, the ache in his joints, the nosebleed... Acting automatically, he switched the shower on and peeled off his filthy, soiled clothes, shivering as he stepped under the water and leaned back against the tiles, refusing to let his thoughts touch him.

He felt raw, flayed. Well, no, not quite, he corrected himself bleakly; he had actually been literally flayed, so he knew the difference. Still, he would rather go through that again. He had never intended anyone to know about Lily. And he had certainly never wanted Hermione to find out; he shivered when he remembered her quietly telling him that she had already known, swallowing bile and focusing on the burn at the back of his throat until the pain eased into numbness again.

Damnit, Lily, he thought despairingly. You've been dead for a decade and a half, and you're still destroying me. Angrily he swiped at his eyes with his sleeve; half out of his mind, his control of his emotions had finally snapped and he vaguely recalled crying himself to sleep, or possibly crying so hard that he had passed out from lack of air. Years of repression had flooded out of him, but the catharsis brought no relief.

Or did it? He felt... a total wreck, yes, but actually he didn't feel quite as bad as he would have expected if he had ever dreamed this would happen. Distantly he analysed the feeling. Not pain, not really... yes, it hurt, but mostly he felt... he felt... angry.

Yes, he remembered feeling like this. Pure rage churned in his stomach, making him nauseous, making his throat burn and his muscles tense and his head ache with the pressure. The cold water sluicing over him was a distant, unimportant sensation, dwarfed by the hate burning in his blood. Dumbledore had gone too far this time, broken the last promise he had still been keeping, and he had done so out of sheer petty spite.

Now, all bets were off.

Fuck the plan. Fuck finding another way.

Let it all burn. Let the world burn. Screw it. It wouldn't matter soon anyway.

Right now he'd do it gladly, and to hell with the consequences.

So, he needed to set some rules. No meeting privately with Dumbledore, because he'd kill the old bastard ahead of schedule if he did. No more training sessions for a while, until he'd regained control of his anger, or he'd end up killing one of them; Potter would need time to come to terms with things too. Meditate as often as possible and rebuild the inner defences that usually kept his rage buried until he needed it. He knew how to handle this, knew how to regain his self control. It was going to be all right.

As for Hermione... Christ, he hadn't thought that could get any more confusing. She knew? What did that mean, then? There was no way in Hell she could ever feel anything if she thought he was pining for a dead woman, surely. That made him pathetic, obsessive and unavailable, or at least uninterested. Not the image he was hoping to cultivate, but... Ah, shit, I don't know any more. He had no way of knowing what she thought. God knows he'd had enough problems trying to work that out even before all this crap had happened. He'd stopped the morning jogs already; try not to see too much of her until he had calmed down.

Shivering, he stepped out of the shower and went in search of clean clothes and something for his headache; he had time to meditate for a while before his first class. Everything was almost over; he just had to hold it together for a little while longer.

Snape wasn't at breakfast the next morning, or lunch; by the afternoon's Defence lesson, Hermione was seriously worried and her lower lip was almost bleeding where she'd been chewing on it. Harry seemed surprisingly all right, more or less, although he had a tendency to look rather startled occasionally and sometimes looked as though he was brooding; Ron stuck to him like a burr and was acting as exuberantly as Fred and George ever had, trying to keep his spirits up. He had tried the same thing with Hermione, and she'd thanked him for the effort but told him to leave her alone. She didn't feel much like being cheerful right now.

Five minutes after the class was due to start, Snape finally swept in just as the fidgeting had threatened to erupt into chaos. He stalked to the front of the room and turned to face them; he looked like seven miles of bad road, frankly, his features paler and more haggard than usual and his general appearance a little the worse for wear. Fixing his eyes on a point in the middle distance, he said crisply, "Your exams are only a few weeks away. You will use this lesson to revise, since I doubt most of you have bothered to do so in your free time. You may speak to one another, provided you do so quietly; any student I hear speaking of something irrelevant to this class or speaking above a whisper will be sorry. Do I make myself clear?"

His voice was slightly husky, with a faintly scratchy quality roughening the usual silky tone, not dissimilar to the way he usually sounded following a particularly bad Summons, but he sounded surprisingly all right given the circumstances. Pretending to study her textbook, Hermione watched him over the top of it; she was well aware that he knew someone was staring at him, but he kept his eyes on his desk and the paperwork he was pretending to do, so for once she was free to watch him. He really did look terrible, tired and drained; his eyes were bloodshot and slightly puffy, although so sunken in his gaunt features that it was almost impossible to tell.

She found her eyes drawn to the desk, and she stared at his hands without knowing why for a few minutes until she realised that his once neat fingernails were bitten short, gnawed right down to the quick. That was such a tiny, insignificant change, but it spoke whole volumes about his fragile mental state at the moment. Clearly, Snape had finally been pushed close to the edge of what he could survive; even his boundless endurance had limits.

After class, she hung back as the others left; she just wanted to try and make sure he was all right, or as all right as he could be. Harry and Ron waited with her, and the three of them very nervously approached his desk; he hadn't once glanced at them all lesson. She exchanged looks with the boys, none of them knowing what to say, then jumped when Snape spoke.

"I have nothing to say to any of you," he said wearily without looking up. "Be on your way." He sounded utterly exhausted, and his voice was a little thick, as though he had a cold. There was no hardness in his voice, no trace of anger or scorn, only a kind of dull and uncharacteristic resignation.

Harry licked his lips and squared his shoulders, very obviously gathering his courage. "Sir...?" he began quietly.

"No, Potter," Snape interrupted softly, still not looking up. "I won't talk about it."

Stubborn as ever. Harry set his jaw and ploughed on regardless. "You betrayed You-Know-Who just to save them?"

After a long pause, their teacher sighed, dropping his quill and ignoring the blot of ink that stained the essay he had been marking. Resting his head in his hands, he said wearily, "Not just for that reason. I wanted a way out anyway... just not badly enough to risk being caught."

"But you risked it for them. For her."

"I failed," he replied starkly. "And there is more to the story that – so far – the Headmaster has not seen fit to enlighten you about." A brief moment of bitterness cut through the listless quality of his voice, but it didn't last. "I won't discuss this with you. I at least have that much left. Go away."

The three of them exchanged glances before reluctantly heading for the door; as they reached it, Hermione stopped, lightly pushing them when they made to stop as well. Giving her a worried look, Harry left; Ron grinned encouragingly at her and followed his friend. Taking a deep breath, Hermione turned around.

Snape still hadn't looked up, but he clearly knew she was still there, a theory supported a moment later when he said in a monotone, "I told you to go away, Granger."

Heartened by the fact that he'd dropped the formal 'Miss', Hermione took a breath and gathered her courage. "I will, sir. I just wanted to say again that I've known for a while. It doesn't make a difference to me. And I think that what the Headmaster did was despicable. That's all."

She watched him anxiously during the pause that followed; it was difficult to tell, but his shoulders seemed to have slumped slightly, a little bit of tension deserting him. She heard him sniff thickly – he really didn't sound well – before he sighed and spoke again, his voice sounding slightly less robotic and empty. "Please, just leave me be."

He was asking, not ordering, which was the only reason she was willing to do as he wished; if he had tried to order her again, she would have dug in her heels, but this had been a genuine request. "If you want," she replied quietly, deliberately dropping the 'sir' from the end of the sentence. "People will worry if you aren't at dinner, though," she added, leaving unspoken but heavily implied the modifier that she was one of them; as she let herself out and closed the classroom door behind him, she just hoped he had got the message.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 27 of 60

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