Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 28 of 60

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A week had never seemed so long before. It was May now, and long days of glorious sunshine only made Hermione feel worse. Something bad happened at the end of every year, that was a fact of life at Hogwarts now, and it seemed this year would be worse than anything they had gone through in the past, and she was scared and feeling very alone at the moment. Curled up in her favourite chair by the fire in Gryffindor Tower, comforted by the sight of the flames even though it was technically too warm for it to be necessary, she rested her head on her hand and did her best to think of nothing as the common room emptied out. She was exhausted, but she knew she wouldn't sleep yet.

A rustle and a soft thump heralded the arrival of someone else, and she looked up slowly before blinking in surprise. "Harry?"

"Hi." He gave her a slightly sheepish smile. "Can't sleep?"

What gave it away? She shook her head ruefully. "No. You?"

"I was on my way to bed when I saw you were still up. How are you? We've not really spoken for a few days..."

"I'm okay. What about you?" Harry had spent most of the last week lost in his own thoughts again, except for the brief periods Ron managed to pull him out of it – presumably Ginny had been able to distract him as well, but Hermione wasn't going to ask.

"I don't know, really." He shrugged and grinned. "I know, I'm as helpful as ever. I'm really not sure. Can we talk about it? I mean, I understand if you don't want to, but I thought you might know a bit more than I do and I'm still not sure how I feel about this."

"I don't really know anything for certain, Harry. Nobody told me anything. It was mentioned in his medical records that he had a female friend in Gryffindor, but her first name was never mentioned and it took me a while to recognise the surname. Before I knew who it was, I asked about her and I was told it was very personal and a bit sad and that she was dead. That's all I know for sure. The rest I worked out or guessed. But I don't mind talking about it, at least a bit. It doesn't make any difference to me, much as I wish it did."

"How is Snape?" Harry asked awkwardly.

"I don't know. I've not seen him, not really."

"Not at all?"

"Only in lessons and at meals. We'd stopped jogging right before it happened, actually, because he wasn't really well enough for it any more, and he's not been to the hospital wing since then either."

"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?"

"I don't know. If it means he's not been hurt, yes, it's a good thing, but it might just mean he's trying to deal with it himself because he's trying to avoid me."

"You think he is?"

"I don't know," she repeated, sighing. "Probably."

"But I thought... well, you seemed to be getting somewhere, weren't you?"

"I thought we might have been, yes, but then... He never wanted me to know that, Harry, I'm certain of that, and he doesn't know how to deal with it now. He doesn't know what to say, and nor do I. It's all become horribly awkward again. And even without that, he's different now. He's so terribly angry all the time – I can feel it every time he walks past; I can see it in his face."

"He's not angry with you, though, surely?" It was almost sweet, how hard Harry was trying to understand.

"Not directly, but he's angry with everything, I think. It's all made his life so much more difficult, and it was bad enough before. I don't know what's going on, Harry, I really don't. I wish I knew what to say, how to talk to him, but..." She shrugged and tried to smile.

"That's what I don't understand," he said slowly. "Why should it be awkward? I thought... When Dumbledore first told us, I assumed he meant they went out or something, but Snape said they didn't..."

"No, he and your mum never dated or anything, but... he wanted to, I think, so I suppose she didn't. I thought that for a while, but I wasn't certain until I saw his face when you said it. I think he felt a great deal for her, but she didn't feel the same. Maybe. This is all sort of guesswork, but I think I've got it right."

"That doesn't make sense," he objected. "I told you about the memory I saw in the Pensieve. They didn't like each other. She joined in the teasing, called him Snivellus and everything, and he called her a... well, I told you what he called her."

"Yes, you told me. Harry, think about what you've just said. What was happening to him when he said that? Do you really think he even knew what he was saying?" She sat up slowly, realising that it was stupid to be defending him but doing so anyway. "Let's put it in context. Imagine that... that Draco and his idiot friends got hold of you. You're not friends with me or Ron, so you're on your own, and you're not very popular. So the gang that hate you get hold of you, disarm you, make you eat soap, then haul you up in the air and threaten to strip you stark naked in front of everyone. There's a big crowd and they're all laughing. And Ginny's there, and you know Draco fancies her, and he's actually flirting with her while he's tormenting you. She speaks up and tells him to stop it. Yes, she's trying to help, but it hurts your pride, and you're already angry, and scared of what's going to happen, and you hate him... you've said some pretty stupid and nasty things with far less provocation than that."

He opened his mouth, frowned, and closed it again, looking unhappy. "I suppose so. But I still don't understand..."

"That day was in his medical file. Not the details, he wouldn't tell Madam Pomfrey what had happened, but she noticed the soap, and some bruises, and that there was no sign of his friend who always visited him when he was hurt and that they must have had a falling-out. I think your mum stopped speaking to him because of what he said, and I don't think he's ever got over that."

"God, what a mess. How do you feel about it, though? I mean, it can't be easy..."

Hermione shrugged. "I don't know, and I'm getting very tired of saying that but I don't. Whatever happened, it was before we were even born. I wasn't lying, it really doesn't make a difference to me, but God knows what he feels. I'm not sure he even knows, to be honest; it's pretty weird. I... thought you might have been right that he liked me, but now? I have absolutely no idea."

"Is this why you were so insistent that you didn't have a chance? Because you knew..." Harry took a breath and visibly forced himself to say it. "...Because you knew he was in love with my mum?"

"That was one of the reasons, yes, but I was honest about all the others too." She sighed. "Talking isn't helping. The only way I'll ever be sure of what he feels is if he wants me to know; he's impossible to read at the best of times. And like I said, I haven't seen him. Right now I don't know if we're even still friends, let alone... anything else. I'm worried about him. The Headmaster shouldn't have done it."

"Yeah," Harry agreed slowly. "That's another bit that's confusing me – why did he tell me? You're right, I didn't need to know. I kind of wish I didn't know, but that's still shock, I think – I would have wanted to know, if that makes sense. But I didn't need to. Did I? I mean, Snape's been much nicer to me this year than he used to – well, relatively nice, I guess. I don't know if he still hates me or not, but he's been sort of pretending he doesn't, so did I need to know one of the other reasons why he did?"

"No, you didn't. I think... I think the Headmaster told you just so you'd go and yell at Professor Snape. To make him hear it from you, to hurt him. I think it was to punish him for finding out about the Horcruxes."

Harry frowned. "But you told Snape about that."

"Dumbledore doesn't know that. He doesn't know we're friends, or whatever it is we are. He knows about the Healing, but not the jogging, and I'm not sure if he knew about the Occlumency or not, and he definitely doesn't know about my parents. He thinks Professor Snape used Legilimency on you and forced it out of you, because that's what Professor Snape led him to think. It's safer that way, but it made Dumbledore furious, and I think this was his way of paying him back."

"Why do you still call him Professor Snape?" he asked, almost smiling, distracted for a moment. "Do you really still think of him like that?"

"As much as possible," Hermione admitted. "It's best if I do. I don't want to slip up in front of anyone, and he's never said I could use his first name or anything. The subject never came up." Although he had once said she didn't have to call him sir all the time... was that what he had meant? Damnit, he's still making me question everything.

Her friend nodded distractedly, falling silent and staring into the fire, his expression hidden behind the reflection of the flames in his glasses. "Is that really why Dumbledore did it?"

"I don't know, but I can't see any other reason. You didn't need to know, and it's just given you something else to worry about and driven another wedge between you and Professor Snape. Unless... maybe that was why. Maybe he wants to separate you again."


"Something big is going to happen at the end of this year. We know Dumbledore's making Professor Snape do something bad," Hermione mused, thinking aloud. "Maybe whatever it is will affect how the war goes. With the Horcruxes and everything, I don't think Dumbledore expects you to stay with the Order, and if Professor Snape has something else to do as well, maybe it's easier if there's some distance between you..." She didn't believe a word of it, but it would be nice if there was at least a bit of doubt, and it would help Harry if she could give him an alternative explanation – her friend didn't have much left to have faith in.

"Maybe," Harry agreed doubtfully. "But Snape said he'd asked Dumbledore not to tell anyone – he changed sides to try and protect my mum, so obviously Dumbledore's known since then. And the way he told me – he wanted me to think there had been something going on between them, he wanted me to go charging down there, didn't he?"

He sounded so confused, and Hermione winced inwardly. Harry had hero-worshipped the Headmaster since the beginning of the first year; he'd never seemed to realise how unusual their relationship was compared to that of every other student, and now the first cracks had appeared and he clearly didn't know how to deal with it.

"I don't know, Harry. I have no idea what his plan is. All I know is what I've seen personally. Whatever's going to happen, it's been destroying Professor Snape for months, and Dumbledore's refusing to tell anyone else in the Order about it. He's keeping the Horcruxes a secret from everyone else as well. I have no idea what the Order are actually doing, but it does seem as if the Horcruxes are how we're supposed to beat Voldemort and everyone else is just kind of hanging around in case something goes wrong, and I honestly have no idea what he's making Professor Snape do but it's obviously not good. I don't know why he won't let anyone else know what he's up to."

"How do you know he hasn't told anyone else?"

"This is going to sound a bit strange, but I'm actually friends with a couple of the portraits of previous Headmasters and Headmistresses..."

He sputtered a startled laugh at that. "Really?"

"Yes." She grinned. "One of them is Phineas, actually. Sirius' great-grandfather, or whatever he is."

"How on earth...?"

"One of the old Headmistresses was a Healer. She's got a portrait in the hospital wing, and she's friends with Phineas. And they both like Professor Snape, weirdly enough, although I don't know how that happened. They watch over him sometimes. It's sweet, really. And strange. Anyway, they tell me things sometimes. Professor McGonagall's visited him and asked what's going on, and she said Dumbledore wouldn't tell her." She sighed. "They know what Dumbledore's making him do, but they're not allowed to tell me – there's some kind of geas on the portraits, they can't say anything they overhear in the Headmaster's office. All I know is that it's bad, and that they're furious that Dumbledore won't tell anyone else before whatever it is happens."

"That doesn't sound good. I guess it's something that's going to make us wonder whose side Snape's on, again, then?"

"That would make sense, but I'm not sure. I don't know if it's related to whatever's going on with Draco, either. I did try to ask Professor Snape about that a while ago, and he wouldn't tell me anything."

"Have you asked him about what Dumbledore's making him do?"

"Of course I have, loads of times, and in lots of different ways. He won't tell me. Partly it's a pride thing, I think, and mostly it's because he's a stubborn bastard who clings to his independence and tries to do everything on his own, but I know he's worried, and he doesn't seem to believe he's going to survive, which is scaring the hell out of me."

"Really?" Harry frowned. "I don't know what that would be, then. Unless you think Dumbledore's going to order him to kill Voldemort or something."

"That's rubbish. It won't work until all the Horcruxes are destroyed. And I don't think he'd be upset about it, either."

"Yeah, true. Plus Dumbledore knows the prophecy. Does Snape know about that? Oh, wait, he mentioned it in training, didn't he."

"I don't think he knows all of it," Hermione remembered. "I overheard him talking to Dumbledore after the battle at the Ministry, and he asked if Dumbledore was ever going to tell him the part he didn't know."

"Huh. That's weird. What's wrong with him knowing all of it? Even I don't think he'd tell Voldemort anything dangerous, not if he hasn't already. I still don't like him, and I don't think I'd trust him, you know, personally, but I guess he is on our side, even if it's only for your sake."

"I don't know. I know he thinks Dumbledore doesn't trust him, but if even you admit he's on our side..." They shared a smile before she shrugged. "The more I learn about all this, the less sense it makes and the less I'm happy. I don't think anyone actually knows exactly what's going on. Maybe not even Dumbledore knows everything."

Harry bit his lip and frowned, before shrugging. "As long as Voldemort doesn't know either," he said practically.

Severus didn't bother looking up when someone knocked on his office door, focusing on the fifth year essays he was supposed to be marking – his paperwork was piling up recently as his concentration wavered and his free time became consumed with more important concerns than homework. Half the time he didn't even bother reading the entire essay any more, skimming each one enough to get a rough idea of how much effort had been put in and using that and his knowledge of how smart each student was to give them an approximate grade.

A second knock at the door made him frown; another staff member wouldn't have bothered knocking, and although he doubted Hermione would have come looking for him now, she would have opened the door after the first knock. That meant a student, but the Slytherins seldom troubled him these days...

"Enter," he said curtly, scanning another few lines of the current essay as the door opened. Looking up, he blinked, somewhat startled to see Potter – who had never voluntarily come anywhere near him, to their no doubt mutual relief. He felt an automatic surge of sheer fury and shame, mingling with the usual dull pang of old hurt and dislike that always happened whenever he laid eyes on the boy, but after a moment his defences stirred and cooled everything once more, which was a relief – he hated being out of control of himself, even briefly.

"Potter," he remarked by way of greeting, looking back at his marking. "I am even less inclined to talk to you right now than I usually am. Go away."

"I'm not here to talk to you, sir," the boy replied in a very carefully level voice, obviously trying not to trigger anything. Severus appreciated that, distantly; it was hard enough to hold himself together at the best of times, and this certainly wasn't. "I just thought you should know Malfoy attacked me earlier."

"What?" His head snapped up and he stared at the Gryffindor for a moment, automatically reading his expression; defiant, nervous, but surprisingly calm. Slowly, reluctantly, he set his quill down and sat back. "All right, Mr Potter, you have my full attention. Make it good."

Potter took a steadying breath. "Moaning Myrtle told me a boy was crying in her bathroom. I went in to see what had happened, and it was Malfoy. I tried to talk to him, but, well, we've never really had a civil conversation since he found out who I really was. We argued, and then he attacked me."

"Really?" he replied sceptically, drawing the word out and raising an eyebrow. "And what did you do in return?"

The boy flushed angrily, but held his temper, looking down. "We traded a few minor hexes, but I didn't do anything. I – I almost did, but I stopped myself."

What do you want, a medal? "Congratulations," he said sarcastically. "I'm sure you can understand why I might be a little reluctant to take your word for it, given your history of lying to me and antagonising Mr Malfoy."

"He – I mean, no, sir," Potter said quietly. The words were forced out through gritted teeth, but still, it was almost enough to impress Severus. Almost. The boy was finally learning. "If I'd done anything bad, though, he'd have come to tell you about it already."

I doubt it. Once, Draco certainly would have come whining – he had done many times before. Publicly, Severus always came to his Slytherins' defence, and usually refused to listen to anyone else's point of view so he could claim plausible deniability later. Privately, he was often as disgusted by their behaviour as anyone else, and behind closed doors he did let them know when they had gone too far. The politics of Slytherin House had always been a hell of a lot more complicated than the easy black and white system of the other three.

"Perhaps," he replied distantly. "What do you intend to do now?"

"You mean, am I going to go to Professor McGonagall or Professor Dumbledore?"

He clenched his jaw at the mention of the Headmaster's name, but he was relieved to find that his anger stayed at a manageable level. "I mean exactly what I asked. What do you intend to do now?"

Potter hesitated for quite a long time. Finally he said slowly, "I don't know... sir. Why was he crying?"

Because he's caught between a rock and a hard place, just like I am. Because he is very young, and he is deathly afraid, and he doesn't know who to trust. "I really couldn't say."

"Do you know?"

"I could probably hazard an accurate guess, if I had to, but it really isn't any of your business, Potter. Keep your nose out," he recommended quietly.

"What is Voldemort making Malfoy do?"

His arm twinged at the mention of the name, and the seething anger went up another notch, but Severus kept his temper, returning an expressionless stare. "Potter, assuming that for once your unfounded suspicions were right, what on earth makes you believe that I would tell you? How many times do I have to tell you that you are not the centre of the universe?"

"Well, we are supposedly on the same side," he muttered sulkily.

I have no idea what side I'm on any more. "And there was almost no emphasis on the 'supposedly'. Well done," Severus replied sarcastically. "Go away, Potter. You weren't hurt, and nor was Draco. Let it go." It was an effort, but he kept his voice soft, slightly closer to asking than ordering. He wasn't in the mood to deal with Potter with his heels dug in; when the boy behaved so stubbornly it was impossible not to remember his parents.

To his mild surprise, Potter nodded reluctantly and replied, "Yes, sir," before turning for the door once more. He hesitated in the doorway. "Sir..."

"No," Severus growled, putting as much warning into his voice as possible. "I told you, I won't discuss it with you."

"I wasn't going to ask about... that," the boy replied indignantly, although the almost guilty tone to his voice made Severus doubt it. He didn't blame Potter for being curious – he didn't know any of his mother's other friends, and Lupin was the only other contemporary of his father still floating around. That didn't mean he was going to talk about it, though. The boy would just have to be curious.

"Then what do you want? I do have work to do."

Potter hesitated again, looking nervous now, which meant whatever he was about to say would probably get him into trouble. Biting back a sigh, Severus lifted his head and regarded him steadily, silently daring him to say it, whatever it was; the boy looked ill. After a painfully visible inner struggle – Gryffindors... – Potter blurted, "Hermione misses you, you know," and bolted, slamming the door behind him as he literally made a run for it.

Severus stared blankly at the door for a moment as he tried to process that. He probably should have been furious that Potter knew anything at all, but he found himself more interested in whether or not it was true. Besides, he was still numb from the last time Potter had learned something very personal about him. Sitting back slowly, he leaned back in his chair and gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling through narrowed eyes. She misses me, does she?

He missed her too, much as it pained him to admit it. They had had no contact outside of Defence lessons since... that night. Initially, he hadn't been in any fit state to risk any company, as his defences wavered and his emotions threatened to take over – God alone knew what he might have said or done at the slightest provocation. After the first few days... he'd still avoided her, simply because he didn't know what to say or do. Even in his darkest nightmares he hadn't imagined this particular scenario, and he was well beyond confused now, as well as hurting. But... but he missed her. She was the only person he knew who he could be absolutely sure didn't want anything from him and trusted him completely. He missed listening to her talk, easily and naturally, the way nobody else ever did. She didn't guard her words around him and he didn't have to pretend to be someone he wasn't.

It would be easier not to do anything, he knew. Just leave it, do nothing, let the distance grow until it didn't matter any more. He also knew how miserable it would make him, he hadn't needed Dilys to warn him off to know he couldn't do that, and there seemed to be a certain amount of evidence that she wouldn't be any happier about a separation. The world was going to Hell, he had nobody else he could trust, and things seemed fractionally less dark when she was around. Frankly, he didn't think he could do this by himself any more.

So, where did that leave him? Thoughtfully, Severus looked back at the half-marked essay, reaching for his quill and setting to work once more. It was Thursday today. Tonight he would be too tired and moody to want to try anything – besides, the three of them would probably be training, and he didn't feel up to facing all of them. Tomorrow... well, Friday was a popular night for Death Eater summons, because the few of them who did work usually didn't do so at the weekends, and he hadn't been Summoned last week, so it was likely that there would be a meeting tomorrow evening. That meant that he would possibly be seeing Hermione in the hospital wing anyway, although he wouldn't be in a position to have any sort of civil conversation and they wouldn't be alone.

He glanced briefly at the stack of paperwork cluttering most of the desk. If he could get most or all of it done tonight... Saturday or Sunday would be a good time to try and meet with her, perhaps. He did still need to demonstrate the trickier parts of the Wolfsbane process to her – Lupin's welfare wasn't exactly high on his list of priorities right now, even by his usual standards, but it would be a damned good excuse. They would be on their own for a few hours, with legitimate work he could use to distract himself and buy time whenever it proved necessary, since he knew there would be a lot of moments where he didn't know what to say. She would want to talk about Lily – or would she? If she really had already known for some time, maybe she wouldn't. And she certainly knew him well enough to know he didn't want to talk about it. God, what a mess, but he could at least try to ignore it for a while in the hope that it would go away. That had never worked before, but there was a first time for everything, right? In any case... one problem at a time.

And during those few hours together... Severus bit his lip, debating with himself, then nodded in sudden resolution. All bets were off now. He'd tell her exactly what Dumbledore was asking of him, and to Hell with the consequences. He didn't want to burden her with it, but if he somehow did survive the end of the year he certainly didn't want her to think he was a traitor. Nobody else's opinion mattered, but his first impulse with anyone he liked even slightly was to try and negate the general view of him and present himself in a marginally better light. If he was really lucky, she might even be able to help him sort out his screwed up thoughts and find a way out of this mess. At least he would feel a little bit better about things.

Hermione wasn't happy. She knew that Snape had been Summoned on Friday, because she'd seen the look on his face when he left dinner early and because Phineas had later confirmed it. It was a little earlier than usual, but not so much that there was any reason for unnecessary alarm. He hadn't come back yet, either, but it was only Saturday morning. It wasn't entirely unheard of for him to take a night off now and then; even though he usually sent word if he was doing so, given his current anger at Dumbledore it was perfectly reasonable that he hadn't done so. There was absolutely no need to panic yet. Except for a nagging feeling she had that something wasn't right.

She was trying to dismiss the feeling as sheer exhaustion on her part, because she was absolutely exhausted, and that in itself was adding to her irritation because there was no reason for her to be so tired. She had slept well – like a log, in fact, more deeply than she usually did. Her revision was going well and she wasn't stressed enough to be getting overtired yet; that would come closer to the exam dates. She hadn't done very much today at all and had no plans for the rest of the day. Yet she was absolutely exhausted, and worrying about nothing, and generally winding herself up.

Checking the clock again – half past eleven, less than ten minutes since she'd last looked – she stifled yet another yawn, heavy-eyed, and wondered uneasily again what was making her worry so much. She had been worried about Snape ever since the night Dumbledore had betrayed him so horribly and painfully, but he seemed to have recovered himself to some extent; over the past week or so, that frightening anger had gradually cooled down as he re-established his walls. She knew how damned strong he was; he could cope with pretty much anything, he was a born survivor – he'd had to be. He would be fine, she told herself again – he'd earned the right to disappear for a few hours by himself, away from the school and his master and the reminders of this world. He would be livid if he knew what an idiot she was being.

Irritably, she shifted position and tucked her feet under her, reaching down to the pile of books beside her normal armchair and picking up the topmost one. Everything was fine. The boys were outside playing Quidditch and wouldn't bother her – they didn't know Snape was absent and she hadn't seen any reason to tell them. The common room was reasonably quiet, since it was a warm and sunny day. There was a picture behind her, close enough that she could be called if it proved necessary. Do some work and forget about it. He would be fine.

Severus couldn't really feel much any more. Earlier he had been in quite a lot of pain, really, what with one thing and another; all his weight had been hanging from his shoulders and wrists, which had been painful in itself even without everything else, but it all seemed quite a long way away now. He was lying on the floor rather than being strung up, now, but he didn't remember when the change of position had happened. The air smelled of blood, a little, but it didn't seem terribly important. He was rather cold, but that was probably only to be expected, because he was fairly sure that he was dying.

It didn't feel as bad as he had thought it would, he reflected quietly. So far, his life hadn't flashed before his eyes, he hadn't seen any tunnels or bright lights and nobody had tried to speak to him. He just felt cold, and everything seemed very quiet and very far away. It was dark, too, but he wasn't sure why because he had a feeling that at least one of his eyes wasn't working properly, so that might not be relevant. He was very tired, a deeper version of the same fatigue that had been dragging at him for months.

Slowly pulling another laboured breath into his lungs, Severus wondered idly how much longer it would take; he had no idea how long he had been here. It could have been two hours or twenty years; he had no frame of reference. He wasn't completely conscious any more, for a start; he was vaguely aware that where his body was, there were people, probably arguing about whose fault it was that they had got so carried away, but he couldn't hear them and wasn't really interested in trying. Much better just to drift here in the quiet depths of his mind, where they couldn't get him, and wait.

He had always known that it probably would end this way, that when it came his death would be painful and lingering and cruel – and it certainly had been, not too long ago; he was more relieved than otherwise now to be too badly hurt to feel it. Such a stupid thing, though, because Voldemort probably didn't even realise it was happening. His master had been suspicious, he remembered that much, and he had been punished for incurring that suspicion, and then the Dark Lord had been called away and had left the others playing and hadn't come back. They had got carried away, apparently, or they had been ordered to, or... well, it didn't really matter now. The point was that he was dying.

Severus turned that thought over in his mind again, trying to discover whether or not he really cared. He didn't think he did, really. It was actually something of a relief. At least it would all be over soon and he wouldn't have to keep fighting any more. There wasn't really anything in his life that he would miss much. A brief memory stirred, and for a moment he saw a pair of vibrant green eyes, but the face that went with them was hazy now and the only emotion it sparked was a faint sense of wistful melancholy. That part of him was well and truly dead already, really. Another memory showed him sparkling brown eyes the colour of dark rum; that image triggered a few more sparks of emotion, mostly a kind of confused, longing regret, but he didn't have the energy to hold on and despite his best efforts her face faded into the dark as well.

He lay quietly, thinking of nothing much, feeling a little more of his strength ebbing away, and contemplated things. No, on the whole, he was relieved to be dying, to be letting go of everything. The Order didn't really need him. His information had been useful, but it had also been limited and usually not heeded anyway, and they would survive quite well without him. They might even win; stranger things had happened, and they were mostly good people. He had never expected to survive until the end.

Any regrets? he asked himself wearily, in the silent darkness that filled his mind. Not many, somewhat to his surprise. In fact, the only thing he still regretted now was becoming a Death Eater in the first place; the circumstances had pushed him towards that decision, but it had ultimately been his choice, and even though he hadn't really had any other options he had still made a conscious decision. That had been the first real mistake, and once he had started there was really nothing else he could have done except continue along the path that had eventually led him here, now, to this cold and dark place where he was dying. He considered all the choices he had made since taking the Dark Mark; no, he couldn't have chosen differently, not and stayed true to himself. He hadn't had a good life, really, but he had tried, and not all of it had been completely his fault. That wasn't much, but it was more than could be said of a lot of people.

All the loose ends had been tied up now, anyway. Potter knew something of why he was doing this; that hadn't been part of the plan, but he didn't exactly object to Lily's son not hating him quite so violently any more. His last ties of loyalty to Dumbledore were in tatters and his last debts and obligations were dust. As for Hermione, well, he had a nagging feeling that she at least suspected how he felt about her; he didn't have to regret never letting her know, and at least he wouldn't have to endure the inevitable rejection that would surely follow. In a strange way, that perhaps counted as a win.

Drawing another slow and faltering breath, feeling the air slither from his lungs on the exhale as the cold sank a little deeper into his bones, Severus waited for the end. Recently he had been wondering rather uneasily about what would happen to him after he died, but now that he was here he found that it didn't matter any more. He wasn't attached to this life strongly enough to become a ghost, so he would go on. In the very, very, very highly unlikely event that he ended up in whatever passed for Heaven, well, that spoke for itself; he'd be happy, even if only by default, although he was somewhat foggy about what form that happiness might take now. It was much more likely that he would be bound in a different direction, but even Hell wouldn't be so bad. He wouldn't have to fight any more. He was very good at surviving pain, and no matter how bad the torment, it wouldn't require him to do anything except passively endure it, which would be quite peaceful. And if there was something else, if reincarnation turned out to be real, well, he doubted he could be shoved into a life much worse than the one he had. No, the afterlife wasn't anything to be afraid of now.

This wasn't quite the death he would have liked, but he supposed it could have been worse. He'd die with his cover intact, after all, serving the plan right to the end, and it didn't hurt any more. He did wish someone else was there with him, though. He'd been alone all his life; it would have been nice not to die alone as well.

The nagging unease that Hermione had been feeling grew steadily worse all day until by late afternoon she was on the edge of a panic attack. There was no point in going to any of the Order; even if something was wrong, they had no way of finding out where Snape was, and besides... she knew with a cold, grim certainty that they wouldn't risk anything to save him. Their spy simply wasn't valuable enough in the Order's opinion to jeopardise any of them, as stupid and as terrible as that was. And she didn't have a scrap of evidence that anything was wrong anyway; Snape had pulled absences like this before, back when she hadn't paid so much attention to his comings and goings, and 'a feeling' wasn't proof of anything.

Even so, she had never felt like this before, and she wasn't about to ignore it completely. As soon as dinner was over, she gave Harry and Ron her usual excuse about monthly cramps and escaped, slipping out into the grounds and making her way through the twilight to the gates. If he did come back and everything was fine, she was going to kill him, she told herself as she settled under a tree and prepared to wait.

The bone-deep cold didn't have such a strong hold on him. Severus tried to focus, trying to work out why that was. It was difficult; his thoughts were gelid, sluggish and cold now, moving at about the speed of glacial ice, and he was so close to death that it was all but impossible to think, but something had changed. Vaguely, a hazy memory surfaced, of swimming in the cold sea, of pulling his numbed body out of the water into the sun; that was what it felt like, warm gentle sunlight sliding over his chilled skin and chasing the cold away.

That didn't make sense. He wasn't sure, since he'd never died before, but he imagined it would be what he had already been feeling, a slow gradual slide into cold dark silence. This soft golden warmth didn't really match that. He wasn't dead yet, since he was very dimly aware of his dangerously slow and arrhythmic heartbeat and his shallow infrequent breathing as his body clung tenaciously to life despite his mind's acceptance; his instincts for survival had always been very strong. Still, the warmth felt nice, something gentle and soothing to ease him, so he wasn't going to complain. It felt vaguely familiar, too, and he didn't think it was just memories of sunlight, but it was too much effort to try and analyse it further. He simply lay passively and felt it slowly flowing through his chilled body, accepting and welcoming the sensation.

After an indeterminate amount of time, another sensation intruded, this one horribly familiar. Too weak to protest the invasion of his mind, Severus shied away from the probe and sank deeper, sliding away from each insidious grasping touch. He was dying, but he was damned well going to die on the right side. Voldemort could bugger off and leave him to die in peace; he wasn't going to tell the snake-faced lunatic anything now. Abandoning most of the surface memories to the foul grip of his master, he drifted into the quiet depths where all his secrets lay hidden, relaxing into the gentle pervasive warmth that followed him down.

"He can hide nothing now. You were so sure that he was a traitor..."

"He is, my Lord, I swear it –"

"You lie. I would have found it if he was. Ah, Severus, your fellows doubt you so much, but you are truly mine still, aren't you, all of you..."

Something else slid through his awareness, and he was distantly pleased that he couldn't feel his body any more, because he really didn't want to know what was happening to it now. All physical sensation had faded to cold numbness, and all mental sensation was reduced to the tantalising golden warmth that embraced him; whatever else might be happening was no concern of his any more. It was almost over.

"Get him to Hogwarts. Let us see how much they value my spy. You had better hope that they save his life; he is too valuable to die yet and I will blame you if he does. Go."

Cold and warmth mingled strangely in the eddying currents of his quiet mental ocean, and Severus drifted, letting go of everything as the merciful darkness claimed him.

Hermione stayed awake as long as she could, but some time after eleven she fell into an uneasy doze filled with troubled dreams, starting awake at every sound. She finally woke up properly, aching and stiff from falling asleep sitting against a tree, and as she slowly got up and began to pace to stretch her cramped muscles she glanced at her watch; just gone five in the morning.

Oh, God.

She was certain Snape had never been gone this long without sending word. If he had sent word to Dumbledore, Dilys and Phineas would know, and would have seen that she wasn't in bed; they would have told someone, probably Madam Pomfrey, who would have come to get her. For Snape to still be absent, after almost thirty six hours, without sending anything to say he was on a mission... something had happened to him. And there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. There was no way of finding him, or even of knowing if he was still alive... she bit her lip fiercely to hold back a sound, shivering violently. Don't think like that. He's still alive. He has to be.

When a sharp crack echoed through the dawn stillness a short time later, she almost screamed, drawing blood from her lower lip as she froze. Several dark shapes stood beyond the gates; after an anxious few moments, she saw them draw away from something on the ground, turning and Disapparating with another thunderous crack. Barely pausing to make sure they were gone, she raced to the gates, yanking at the bars; she was in no state to remember that only the teachers could open the Hogwarts gates, and as they yielded to her frantic assault and swung open easily it didn't really matter. Running forward, she dropped to her knees by the huddled shape, nearly gagging on the smell of blood, and stared in momentary frozen horror.

"My God," she whispered numbly, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. The grainy predawn light of sunrise this far north mercifully hid some of the details, and sheer shock helped shield her from the impact of the rest; for a moment all she could see was red and black. Working through the frozen panic, she reached out with a shaking hand to touch his neck, flinching at the feel of his cool skin slick and sticky with drying blood as she tried to find his pulse.

Finally she felt a slow throb under her fingertips, and almost collapsed with relief, a sob catching in her throat; Snape was still alive. How, she had no idea; she had never seen anyone so badly hurt. His face was a mask of blood that did nothing to hide the injuries underneath, and his clothes were in tatters and there seemed to be a wound visible through every rip and tear. His pulse was very weak and slow, and dangerously arrhythmic, but it was there. Swallowing bile as she stared at the blood on her fingers, she took a deep breath and almost retched again at the thick sweet coppery smell of blood, that almost but not quite hid the other smells of burned meat and filth, and frantically thought of fog; if she panicked now, he would probably die. He was minutes from death, as far as she could tell, and she fumbled numbly for her wand.

"Mobilicorpus," she whispered finally, her voice shaking. It was very dangerous to move him without knowing how badly he was hurt, but it was more dangerous to stay here outside the protection of the school grounds; she levitated him through the gates and kicked them shut behind her before spreading her robe out on the grass beside the drive and lowering him as gently as possible.

Trembling, she struggled to think, finally starting to cast a couple of diagnostic spells. If he was still alive, most of his injuries probably wouldn't be immediately fatal, but... yes, he was still bleeding in a few places on his back. Easing the unconscious man onto his side, she gingerly peeled away some of the remains of his robe, and nearly threw up; his back was one raw red ruin, except for the darkness of bad burns and a brief, horrible glimpse of white bone. Swallowing hard, she focused on the buzzing in her ears and thought of fog, automatically finding the places where he was still bleeding. Blood loss would kill him if nothing else did. He was bleeding internally too, but there wasn't much she could do here.

Once she had dealt with that, she turned her back on him, trying not to listen to the terribly faint, laboured rasp of his breathing. She needed to clear her head, and she couldn't do that while looking at the ruins of what had been done to him. This was well beyond her, and since there was absolutely no way she was leaving him here to go for help, she needed to calm down and somehow focus on a happy memory in order to conjure her Patronus. It had never been so difficult to meditate, but she kept at it, focusing on the fact that he needed her to do it; when she felt calmer, she tried to think of something happy, finally settling for the simple fact that he was alive and trying to picture that lopsided little smile of his.

"E-expecto patronum," she whispered at last, her voice catching, watching her silver otter slowly forming. Stammering the message, she watched it streak off towards the castle and the hospital wing, before turning back to Snape's unconscious figure; it would be a while before the mediwitch could get down here, so she should try and do something useful and find out the extent of the damage. If she could stop crying long enough to see what she was doing, at least.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 28 of 60

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