Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 4 of 60

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Since that ridiculously brief talk with Snape about how dreadful their Defence lessons were now, Hermione had been doing a lot of thinking, in between all her other work. Clearly, nobody was going to be able to do anything to stop the foul old hag, not with the Ministry giving her so much power, so there was no chance of them getting rid of her any time soon – unless they poisoned her, as Ron had suggested. It was tempting, but no. Equally, there was no chance that she was actually going to teach them anything useful; Hermione had already started putting other books inside her copy of Defensive Magical Theory so she could read something more productive in class, and Harry seemed set to be put in detention every night for the entire year unless his hand fell off first.

The other teachers couldn't help; they had their own inspections to deal with. Trelawney was probably going to get the sack; Ron had told her that the Divination inspection had been a total mess. The Transfiguration inspection they'd seen had been absolutely hilarious, but it would only make Umbridge more determined; the staff had their own problems to worry about, especially since the ones she would most have trusted were all busy with the Order anyway.

So the only other realistic option was to learn it themselves. It had seemed like a good idea to her, and when she raised the subject Ron actually seemed to agree with her, which was something of a record given how much they'd argued this year already, but Harry didn't react in quite the way she'd hoped. In fact, he lost his temper. Again. The best she managed to achieve was to get him to stop shouting long enough to ask him to think about it, before she made her escape; she was due in the Infirmary later for another lesson.

Hermione regarded the mediwitch expectantly that night. "What are we doing today?" Her lessons were never boring, at least.

"Putting what you have learned into practice," the nurse told her. "You will be performing some of the diagnostics I have taught you and recording your findings so I can make sure you understand more than just the theory."

"Okay," she agreed eagerly, already itching to make a start. "Who..."

As if on cue, the door opened, and she turned, ready to start stammering about monthly pains if it was anyone who didn't know why she was really in the hospital wing. The fact that there had been no polite knock should have tipped her off, but it was still a jolt to see Professor Snape giving her a flat and not very nice look.

"Good evening, Severus," Poppy greeted the surly figure of the Potions master cheerfully. "Thank you for agreeing to this."

"You gave me very little choice," he replied flatly in an unfriendly tone, giving Dilys' portrait a venomous glare before stalking forward to stand in the middle of the room and fixing his dark eyes on a point in the distance, scowling.

He didn't seem too pleased about the prospect of acting as a guinea pig. Hermione couldn't blame him; she couldn't say that the idea filled her with joy either. It made sense, since he was going to be her first and hopefully only patient for some time and since the diagnostics wouldn't simply come back clean, but it still meant she was going to be using magic on Professor Snape. It wouldn't be the first time, admittedly, but she didn't think she could keep getting away with it. She gave Poppy a pleading look, which the older witch blithely ignored. "When you're ready, Severus."

His scowl intensified, although he still seemed determined to pretend that there was nobody else in the room with him. After a long moment he moved, lifting his hands and starting to unbutton the cuffs of his robe before working on the other fastenings, still staring fixedly into the distance as he shrugged the heavy garment off his shoulders. Hermione could count on the fingers of one hand the times she had seen him devoid of his infamous billowing robes and have several fingers left over; watching this was just plain weird.

The black frock coat followed, joining the robe on the floor, and he stood in the middle of the room in his shirtsleeves, still glaring at the wall. His white shirt was thin enough that they could see he was wearing what looked like a plain white t-shirt underneath it, and Dilys laughed softly. "Merlin, Severus, must you wear so many layers all the time?"

"The dungeons are very poorly heated," Snape replied, sounding almost defensive. He shifted his weight uneasily, almost fidgeting and very clearly not happy. "Get on with it. I do have work to do."

"Severus, don't be childish," Poppy chided him. "You know you're not finished. You probably know more about Healing than I do; you certainly know more about teaching. If you make everything into a fight, this will take twice as long. Dilys, stop teasing him."

A nerve twitched briefly at the corner of Snape's left eye, his jaw tightening, before he turned abruptly and stalked across the room to a chair, using Summoning charms to snatch his robe and coat on the way past and dropping them on the floor beside it before he sat down and bent to unlace his boots, his lank hair falling forward to hide his face. Discarding his boots and his socks, he stood and slunk barefoot out into the middle of the room again, his expression a blend of self-consciousness and anger as he wrenched at his shirt cuffs. Hermione swallowed hard, giving Madam Pomfrey an uneasy look before reluctantly turning her attention back to Snape.

Moving jerkily now, and with his jaw clenched tightly, Snape half-unbuttoned his shirt before yanking it over his head and taking the t-shirt he wore as an undershirt off with it, and he was suddenly half naked as he dropped the tangle of white cloth to the floor and straightened to glare at the wall again. Despite herself, Hermione stared; she wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the sight of a shirtless man, but Snape wasn't exactly normal.

For a start, he was incredibly thin; his ribs were all clearly visible, his stomach was concave and even his collarbones stood out clearly. His hip bones were so pronounced just at the edge of his trousers that it almost seemed they were all that kept his clothing up. He had some body hair, but not much, and a half-healed, scabbed-over cut raked across his chest through the thickest part. The Dark Mark stood out clear and black on his arm, and she jerked her eyes away from it and from the scars on his wrists uncomfortably.

Those weren't his only scars, either, she realised as her eyes adjusted to what she was seeing. His sallow skin made some of them hard to see, but in places the shadows fell oddly and revealed lots of small nicks and furrows in his flesh, including a nasty-looking one cutting across his stomach and his hip to vanish into his trousers on his left side that turned out to be two scars on closer inspection, one from what looked like an appendix removal and one that could have been anything. Caught up in studying him, Hermione began walking in a slow circle around him, and gasped aloud when she saw his back.

Here, too, his thinness was painfully apparent; his shoulder blades almost sliced through his skin, his ribs showed from this angle as well and even the knobs of his spine were clearly visible. But it was the condition of his skin that she noticed, especially since he had no hair on his back to obscure any of the gory details. More half-healed wounds striped his shoulders and upper back, the scabs dark and dry, and in places those wounds were crooked because of existing scars. His skin was almost patchy with scar tissue in the worst spots, ranging from very old white marks to more recent reddish ones. She could see burn scars, and clean cuts, and jagged marks that could be anything, and smaller ones that were hard to identify. In addition to the scars, his body was mottled with bruises, mostly on his ribs and arms but also in an area on his back almost as though he had been thrown into something.

"Enjoying the view?" he hissed suddenly, startling her back to reality. His voice was icy cold and when she moved around him to see his face his black eyes were burning with fury as a flush rose in his cheeks.

"...I'm sorry, sir," she whispered uneasily, trying not to back away too obviously.

"Severus, leave her alone. You agreed to this. And you're not finished yet."

"No," he snapped, flushing again. "I am not humiliating myself any further. This is all you get."

Thank God for that, Hermione thought fervently. One, he'd kill her. Two, while she knew that Healers often dealt with nudity, she didn't feel ready to do so yet and even if she did, Hell would freeze over before she would be comfortable with the idea of Snape in that situation. Three, he'd kill her. Again. It was a little strange that he was finding it so embarrassing, though, she mused, glancing uncertainly at him again – surely he must be used to being exposed in front of Healers. Although admittedly not apprentice Healers who were students of his and who happened to be friends with the boy he hated above all others... No, fine, she could understand why he might be rather uncomfortable. Besides, he was no oil painting; he must know what he looked like, and she couldn't imagine any man would be pleased to have a teenage girl viewing them under these circumstances.

"Well, get on with it," Snape growled, interrupting her woolgathering. Barely suppressing a startled squeak, Hermione nodded and scrabbled for ink and parchment and her wand and set to work.

None of the diagnostic charms she was using were giving back normal healthy results; it was enough to make her start feeling queasy after a while. This man had so much wrong with him, it was a miracle he was still standing. Most of the time she was just guessing at what the abnormal results meant; she hoped she was wrong about a lot of them. And every charm seemed unable to cope with the Dark Mark; she could do nothing anywhere near his left arm, and tried to avoid looking at the brand.

At one point she said absently, "I don't quite recognise the results I'm getting here..."

She nearly fell over from shock when Snape replied crisply, "Where?" and she looked around to find him scowling at her and nobody else in the room. Shirtless and on the defensive or not, his expression was still profoundly intimidating.


He glared at her. "Madam Pomfrey was called away. So she claims," he added in a sour undertone; he looked livid to have been left in this situation, but Hermione realised that the anger in his face couldn't have been directed at her or he would already have lost his temper. "Where are you getting the unfamiliar results?"

Hesitantly, she pointed, and he growled in exasperation. "I don't have eyes in the back of my skull, Miss Granger, contrary to popular belief. Show me."

Biting her lip, Hermione very gingerly laid two fingertips on his back, trying to pick a spot without any scars; his skin felt cool to the touch and he flinched noticeably when she made contact. "Ah. That would be the liver, viewed from an incorrect angle. Specific hepatic charms should be cast here," he told her in a tone that strove for neutrality without quite making it, laying a hand on his side. He was avoiding eye contact and was so tense that he was practically vibrating. "Your readings indicate cirrhosis caused by recurrent low-level chronic hepatitis."

"Jaundice?" she asked, surprised.

"Obviously," he growled. "Did you really think my skin is naturally this colour? Even living underground won't do this to someone." He had a point there, although she knew better than to say so.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the cause of the liver damage, but she restrained herself, partly to avoid triggering his temper and partly because she really didn't want to know right now. Nodding, she wrote it down; Madam Pomfrey would be going through this with her later anyway.

Horrible and nerve-wracking or not, it was also fascinating, and she had no idea how much time had passed before she spoke again. "Sir, there's another reading here I don't understand. It's not related to a specific organ, but it doesn't seem to be a wound or spell residue."


"Um..." She swallowed hard and started blushing, sitting back on her heels behind him and staring up at the patchy skin of his back, praying that he wouldn't turn around and look at her. "Below your waist," she mumbled finally, and heard a sharp hiss of indrawn breath as he visibly tensed, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.

After far too long a pause, he said curtly, "Nothing for you to concern yourself with. It is no part of your training as a wartime Healer."

"We won't always be at war, sir," she protested softly. "And what am I supposed to do if I find an injury I don't recognise? Apologise to the patient and tell them that I can't treat them because my training was too narrowly focused to be useful?"

"You won't find this problem in any of your patients," he growled. "For once in your life, Miss Granger, let it go and stop sticking your nose into everything where it's not wanted all the time."

"Severus," Dilys interrupted quietly from the wall in an uncharacteristically gentle voice. "She will find out, soon. She has to. Would you rather she heard it from you, or from us?"

Snape stared into the distance for a while, a vein pulsing briefly in his temple; his thin face lost most of what little colour it possessed, save for bright spots of red over his cheekbones, and he had started shivering very slightly. Hermione scooted back and got her legs under her, ready to run if it looked like an explosion was imminent, and tried not to panic as she wondered what on earth was so bad. She had no idea what the reading meant, but...

"Are you bound by the oaths of confidentiality yet, Miss Granger?" Snape said finally in a rather strained voice.

"No, sir," she replied honestly, "but I would never discuss anything of your medical history with someone who didn't already know." Gryffindor she might be, but she didn't have a death wish; besides, it wasn't anyone else's business.

She heard him whisper something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like an obscenity, and a nasty one at that, before he shook his head slowly and abruptly spun around, stalking past her to the chair and beginning to retrieve his clothing in silence. He wasn't quite scrambling into his garments again, but he wasn't hanging around either, getting dressed in record time. Evidently he considered that the lesson was over, and Hermione certainly wasn't going to argue with him, not when he was in this mood.

Fully dressed, Snape swept past her and to the door. He paused with his hand on the knob, turning his head just enough to glance at her out of the corner of his eye, keeping his head down so that his hair obscured his face, before turning away from her once more. She heard him mutter something under his breath, too quietly to be heard, before he lifted his head and stared at her and she took an involuntary step back at the look on his face. The emotions in his eyes possessed an almost tangible force that hit her like a physical blow; his rage and pain screamed from their dark depths, shadowed with something almost like shame.

A cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach. "Oh, God," she whispered, barely aware that she was speaking as she stared at him. "You mean..."

The turbulent storm in his eyes increased. "Yes," he hissed, a muscle jumping in his cheek, before he dropped his eyes, wrenching the door open and all but bolting from the room, leaving her staring after him in shock as his hurried footsteps receded down the corridor. When she glanced up, Dilys' frame was empty. Hermione turned to stare after the departed Snape for a moment as it began to sink in, feeling icy horror starting to fill her, before she turned away. Carefully laying her notes down neatly and putting her wand away, she unhurriedly and calmly walked through the hospital wing to the small bathroom, where she proceeded to be violently sick.

Dry-eyed and numb, she finally left the bathroom and found Madam Pomfrey waiting for her. The nurse said gently, "Hermione, I am sorry. I didn't intend for you to learn... that... yet. And I would have told you far less bluntly, to try and reduce the shock."

She shook her head. "He wasn't... blunt about it," she said dully. "He was actually... I don't know. It could have been worse. I don't know why he even told me, though. Well, he didn't exactly tell me, but I don't know why he let me work it out..."

"Because I would have eventually told you if he hadn't," Poppy replied gravely. "I didn't realise there were recent enough traces for you to pick it up, or I would have stayed with you and prevented you finding out."

"You didn't realise?" Hermione repeated quietly, still feeling rather detached about it as she accepted a glass of water to wash the taste out of her mouth.

"Professor Snape doesn't tell me everything. And I learned long ago not to ask about... certain things. He is more than capable of treating the physical after-effects himself and he doesn't like anyone knowing. I'm not sure that even the Headmaster knows."

"Lucky for the Headmaster, then," she said bitterly. "I wish I didn't know." Chilled, she fought not to shiver and wrapped her robe around herself more tightly. "I really, really wish I didn't know." Swallowing bile, she made herself ask, "There's no chance that he's gay or something, is there?"

"No. Definitely, absolutely not. And even if he were, that level of damage isn't normal."

She nodded dully; no, that would be too easy. She had always seen him as rather asexual anyway, frankly. Gritting her teeth and swallowing again, she made herself think it. Professor Snape has been raped. Apparently not for the first time, either. She gagged, retching for a moment, but there was nothing left to bring up.

"I am sorry, my dear."

"Why? Isn't this what you wanted? Fine, you win, I don't hate him any more. I can't hate him after learning that. Happy?"


"No! I didn't want to know that!" She tasted salt on her lips and realised that she had started crying, which only made her angrier. She had been perfectly happy hating Snape and dismissing him as a cold-hearted and untrustworthy, unpleasant man. Learning that he had valid reasons for being that way and that he suffered a lot in silence that nobody had any idea about for the sake of people who hated him was destroying all her comforting illusions.

"I'm sure you didn't," the older witch said quietly. "I didn't want to know, when I first learned. Even now, I don't ask, because I still don't want to know. But this is part of what being a Healer means, especially a wartime Healer for the Order of the Phoenix." She gave Hermione a clean handkerchief. "And we only have to deal with the aftermath," she added gently. "Severus – Professor Snape – is the one who has to endure it."

"How...?" Hermione asked thickly, trying in vain to dry her eyes as she started to shake. She couldn't speak well enough to finish the question, though. How does he do it? And why? What could be so important to him that he would be willing to endure that kind of abuse? He had been a Death Eater once. What had Voldemort done, to make Snape hate him so?

"He's Severus Snape," Dilys responded quietly, trying for matter of fact and not quite getting there. The portrait shrugged when Hermione looked up and tried to focus on her. "It's the only answer we have, Hermione. By all rational laws, he should have been killed long before the end of the first war. I have no idea how he's survived this long, especially as I'm certain we still don't know everything that happens to him. Something keeps him going, but I'll be damned if I know what it is. He is... frighteningly strong."

Hermione blew her nose hard, starting to feel marginally better, at least physically. She gestured vaguely at her notes. "If I'm right about even half of that, he should be dead now."

The mediwitch picked up the sheaf of parchment and leafed through it quickly. "No, you're more or less spot on, my dear. Well done. And try not to worry too much – it will take far more than just this to stop Professor Snape for long. Anyone else would be dead, true, but as Dilys said – this is Severus." The nurse smiled rather sadly. "Even now, I am constantly amazed at what he manages to endure. Half the time it doesn't even slow him down."

"He even looks half dead," Hermione commented, hiccupping as she fought down her sobs and forced herself to calm down a bit before she became hysterical. She thought for a moment. "No, he doesn't, actually. He should do, but he doesn't. It's like... I don't know, a greyhound or something. It's not normal for a human to be that skinny, but somehow it works for him? I can't explain it."

"I've heard worse descriptions of him," Dilys responded with a laugh. "I daresay Severus has, too."

Madam Pomfrey looked like she was trying not to laugh as she nodded. "Rather clumsy when compared to your usual standards, Miss Granger, but I understand exactly what you mean. Normal rules do not apply to Severus Snape. Now, if you'd like to bring your notes into my office, I'll make some tea and start teaching you why that is, as much as we've been able to puzzle out."

Potions the following day proved to be one of the worst lessons of Hermione's academic life. Snape spent most of it glaring at her, apart from the almost challenging look on his face every time he sat down that dared her to flinch or wince, and you didn't need to be a know-it-all to spot that he was just waiting for the slightest excuse to rip her apart. Hopefully only verbally, but she honestly wasn't sure. Even Harry didn't often attract this level of rage. Clearly Snape felt extremely embarrassed now that she knew more of the truth than almost anyone else, and the man was obviously finding it difficult to reconcile Hermione the Healer's apprentice with Hermione the student. Just as clearly he had absolutely no faith in her promise to keep silent.

All in all, it made for a very uncomfortable atmosphere, especially as a sleepless night and another fit of crying had left her exhausted and on edge anyway. For once it was easy to leave Neville, Harry and Ron to their own devices; not only did she absolutely not want to do anything to draw Snape's anger, but it was all she could do to keep an eye on her own potion, let alone anyone else's, especially since she had such a lot to think about.

Last night had been horribly upsetting, but it had also been enlightening. By all accounts, Snape was a medical miracle, given everything that appeared to be wrong with him. His metabolism alone was utterly weird; bizarre as it seemed, he was naturally thin and it had nothing to do with his diet. He didn't suffer from an eating disorder or a thyroid problem or anything like that; he simply never gained weight, particularly when stressed. Admittedly at the moment his weight was below normal even for him, but it wasn't as serious as it seemed it should be.

The chronic hepatitis turned out to have been caused by alcohol abuse in the past, and there wasn't much point in trying to heal it completely because he still occasionally drank far more than he should do. Not often, Madam Pomfrey and Dilys had assured her, but sometimes. It seemed there was a history of alcoholism in his family anyway, and given the kind of life he led it was understandable that he sometimes sought other methods of coping. Hermione had asked about the needle marks again and they had assured her that although he had been a user in the past, he had been clean for about ten years now; they didn't think he had started again, and he said he hadn't. He also had a history of self harm; not all his scars had been inflicted by other people, although they were pretty sure that had stopped now.

'Pretty sure' was the problem, really. It was impossible to get an accurate picture of Snape's medical history, for the simple reason that he refused to talk about it or admit to anything. He dealt with most of his injuries himself and mostly ignored the ones he couldn't handle alone until they eventually healed unaided. He turned out to be a fairly competent amateur healer, at least where wounds and curses were concerned, and knew enough about non-magical medicine to keep himself going. She already knew he controlled his diet himself; that had turned out to be at least partly because he had a stress-induced stomach ulcer and a half-healed second one – which probably went some way towards explaining his temper.

The scars and half-healed cuts and bruises were apparently near enough irrelevant. Snape's pain tolerance was utterly inhuman and he paid little attention to even quite serious wounds; he had so many scars because most of the time he actually couldn't be bothered to heal them, apparently, which probably indicated a few psychological issues even as it went some way towards explaining his general appearance.

It was his nervous system that was the real problem; continual exposure to the Cruciatus curse was slowly shredding his nerves. Hermione hadn't learned the more in-depth neural analysis charms yet, but Madam Pomfrey showed her the results of the last scan she had done on Snape and explained what it meant, and the Potions master was in constant pain all the time because he usually didn't have enough time to completely recover before being cursed again. His circulation was failing, too, taking his body temperature a degree or two below normal – she had noticed him shivering earlier.

All told, it wasn't really much of a surprise that Snape was always in such a foul mood, given the circumstances.

They had attempted to discuss the issue of sexual assault, as well, but with limited success; partly because the subject was so distressing, and partly because Madam Pomfrey and Dilys didn't really know much about it. Snape had never told them about it; the mediwitch had found out more or less by accident once when she had noticed that he was bleeding internally and had insisted on finding out the cause and he had been too weak to argue. They had no idea how frequently it happened, since he so seldom let Madam Pomfrey examine him; Hermione resigned herself to biting her lip every time she saw the man sit down for a while yet. Apparently Voldemort used sex both as a reward and a punishment, as if she needed another reason to hate him. They had told her that it was extremely rare, and assured her that the rumours and stories of Death Eater revels were almost all nonsense and exaggeration, but that was hardly much comfort.

Madam Pomfrey had taught Hermione a little about dealing with such cases, but added that it wouldn't do her any good in this situation because Snape didn't react the way most people did. If he felt the usual shame and guilt over it, he kept it inside, and although there was little doubt that he was traumatised by it, he kept that inside as well. That wasn't remotely healthy, but there was no way of forcing him to do anything else, and he obviously preferred them to leave the issue alone. Horrible as it was, the best thing they could do was to ignore it, because that was what he wanted and because there wasn't really anything they could do about it anyway.

That was the worst part, in Hermione's opinion. Everything she had seen wasn't going to get any better. It would all keep happening to him, over and over again, until either he died or Voldemort did. Sadly, the former was more likely to happen before the latter. It meant that Snape wasn't going to be able to heal. He'd have to keep enduring pain and injury that would have killed anyone else long before now, until it finally did kill him. By that point, frankly, he would probably welcome it.

What's the point of being a Healer if you can't actually heal someone?

She glanced very briefly at Snape's desk again, not letting her eyes linger for more than a second. He was still glaring at her and his expression didn't alter by a hair when he saw her looking at him; if anything, his dark eyes grew harder still. Hastily returning her gaze to her cauldron, Hermione wondered uneasily what was going to happen now.

Obviously something had to change; she liked Potions and wanted to do as well as possible in her OWL and she couldn't do that if she spent every single lesson on tenterhooks waiting for him to finally lose his temper and verbally eviscerate her. Equally, she couldn't do well in any other lesson if she spent every night alternately sobbing and brooding. She also wasn't going to be able to continue her training as a Healer if her main patient reacted with barely-restrained fury every time she found out something else about his medical state.

She supposed she could just wait and see whether things began to improve, but her temperament had never been suited to that. Besides, in addition to horror and pity, the situation had also aroused her curiosity. Her friends could all testify to how dangerous Hermione Granger could be when she had focused on something, and now she wanted to know not only how Snape managed to survive everything he was going through, but why. And that meant she needed to find out more about him.

And then after that, I'll walk up to Voldemort and give him a big wet kiss, she told herself dismally. She couldn't really have picked anything more dangerous.

Snape was going to kill her.

Hermione struggled for a week to come up with a plausible plan that wouldn't result in her messy and violent death before finally admitting defeat. She spent too much time with Gryffindors, she acknowledged ruefully; there was no way she was capable of facing any Slytherin, let alone their Head of House, with any degree of subtlety. She needed an insight into how they saw the world; the problem was that none of her allies were Slytherins and all the Slytherins of her acquaintance utterly despised her.

The idea came to her in the middle of the night, startling her out of a sound sleep with a sudden flash of inspiration. There was one Slytherin who might – just might – be disposed to help her; if she was careful and didn't try to do it all by herself, at least. No time like the present; she scrambled out of bed and found her dressing gown, padding silently out of the dormitory and down the stairs to the deserted common room and across to the portrait hole, promising herself that she would find a portrait for above her bed after this.

The Fat Lady wasn't pleased at being disturbed, but her indignation was cut short when Hermione politely asked her if she could pass on a message to the portrait of Dilys Derwent requesting a meeting. Less than ten minutes later, Hermione was sitting in an empty classroom not far from Gryffindor Tower looking at the portrait of the former Headmistress and Healer. "I want to meet Phineas Nigellus."

Dilys raised an eyebrow at her. "Why?"

"You said he was one of Professor Snape's allies, that he was part of your group with you and Madam Pomfrey."

"Yes... but I told you that weeks ago. Why do you want to meet him now?"

"Because I think I need his help," Hermione admitted quietly. "He's the only person I can think of who might be able to help me understand Slytherins. None of the students will talk to me even if I wanted to risk it, and obviously I can't ask Professor Snape himself. What do you think?"

The elderly witch frowned. "You're right that he could help you. The question is whether he will or not. Phineas is very much a Slytherin; there is a reason you haven't met him already. He dislikes you for your birth. In addition, he does nothing without a very good reason; he will likely demand a price, and he is quite capable of telling Severus what you are trying to do on a whim out of sheer spite."

"I guessed that much," she replied with a shrug. "I don't think I have much choice, though. Either I risk the possibility of his telling on me, or I face the absolute certainty of my being discovered because I'm too much of a Gryffindor."

Dilys smiled ruefully. "You are the least overtly Gryffindorish of any of your year... but I admit that isn't really saying much. You're not much of a match for any Slytherin, and certainly not Severus. Very well; I will see what Phineas has to say. He will want to meet you in private, without me, to see what you're really made of, and he will be unpleasant."

"As bad as Professor Snape?" Hermione asked mischievously.

The portrait snorted softly. "Worse. Severus has manners; Phineas does not."

"Any advice?" I never noticed that Snape had manners.

"Be honest. He has been around for a long time; he knows when he's being lied to. And try to keep your temper; don't let him see you as a silly little schoolgirl, or as an overly emotional Gryffindor. Good luck."

Dilys departed from the frame, and Hermione settled more comfortably on her chair, wishing irrelevantly that she had brought Crookshanks with her. It would be nice to have an ally in this, and certainly her familiar would be more likely to understand than any of her friends would.

A few minutes later a cultured male voice drawled haughtily, "What do you think you're doing, Mudblood?"

Nice. Turning, she regarded the portrait, who was giving her a look of withering disdain. Hermione had – naturally – done her research, and she knew that Phineas Nigellus Black was one of Sirius' ancestors; you wouldn't know it to look at him, though. "Good morning, sir," she replied as politely as possible. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with me."

He sniffed. "Answer the question, girl."

"As I am sure Dilys explained," she began carefully, "I wanted your advice. I need some help to understand the general Slytherin mindset."


Be honest, Dilys had said. Hermione took a deep breath. "Lots of reasons, sir. Partly because of the war; many of the Death Eaters are Slytherins, and so is You-Know-Who. I'd like to understand a bit more about how they think, to see if I can work out why some of this is happening. I'd like to know a little more about my year mates, too. I see them every day and know nothing about them. But mostly, I admit, it's because of Professor Snape."

She paused for a moment to see if there was any reaction, but the lack of facial expression seemed to be a universal trait in adult Slytherins; Phineas might have been a frozen Muggle painting for all the emotion he showed. "Continue."

"I'm curious about him," she admitted. "He's always been the teacher I never connected to, the one I could never manage to impress. That's part of it. I want to know more about him. But I also want to help him, and unless I understand him enough I'll never get close enough to be able to. He's letting me help Madam Pomfrey with his Healing and so on, because he doesn't have much choice, but a blind man could see how much he hates it. Things will be easier for all of us if I can find an approach that he'll hate less."

The portrait was silent for a long time. Hermione did her best not to fidget and bit her tongue to stop herself badgering him. Finally the former Headmaster said nastily, "Arrogant little Mudblood, aren't you?"

"Please don't call me that, sir," she replied levelly.

"Does the truth bother you so much?"

"No, but it's a little hypocritical. My parents may be Muggles but at least they're not cousins; I'd rather be a Muggleborn than an inbred," she snapped. "My bloodline is probably cleaner than yours." There was no way to stop herself sounding angry, but she did manage not to shout at him.

To her surprise, the portrait snorted, looking almost amused. "Interesting." Annoyed, Hermione realised that he was playing with her, testing her. She was about to demand an answer – would he help her, or not? – but something made her bite her tongue; she needed his help more than she needed her pride right now.

Phineas tilted his head, narrowing his eyes slightly as he studied her. His expression indicated that he was looking at some rare and unusual insect trapped under glass, but he did seem to be thinking. "I will tell you a few things, girl, because I want to see what happens," he said at last. "It is very dull, being a portrait – you can't even begin to imagine how dull. This promises to be amusing, if nothing else. But I won't spoon-feed you. If you're as smart as Dilys claims, you should be able to work it out for yourself. If you're not..." He chuckled nastily. "If you're not, Severus will turn you inside out and leave you hanging out to dry. Either way, I'll enjoy watching. So pay attention, because I won't repeat myself, and don't interrupt."

Biting her tongue again, Hermione nodded slightly and sat forward, looking at him.

"First; every true Slytherin has more than one reason for everything we do. Equally, we see more than one motive behind everything everyone around us does. We take nothing for granted and we take nobody at face value."

She nodded slowly to show that she had heard him; she'd need time to think it over before she'd claim to understand, but she'd heard.

"Second; our society is focused entirely on rich purebloods. Severus is a poor half-blood. Keep that in mind."

Hermione thought about this; Phineas had paused, apparently to give her time to mull it over. Snape would always have been an outcast, then. To move in that world would have been a constant struggle. Making a mental note to review what she knew of his history and to try and find out more about pureblood traditional values when she got the chance, she nodded again.

"Third; no Slytherin finds it easy to trust anyone. We are taught to rely on ourselves, to use those around us, to look after our own interests. Severus had harsher lessons than most."

She nodded again. She knew enough of Snape's history to guess that he had some issues; Phineas was telling her to look deeper, to think more about it. He had been bullied terribly, almost beyond endurance, he'd almost certainly been abused by his parents, he had apparently lost his only close friend, he had been betrayed by the institution that was supposed to protect him, and he was routinely exposed to terrible abuse.

"That's enough for you to be going on with," Phineas told her crisply. "A bit of advice for your second step – your first was seeking my help, which is surprisingly intelligent for a Gryffindor. Don't go charging in. Don't try and push yourself into his life, don't try and force him to change his routine. Try and be at least vaguely subtle. He will suspect, don't think for a moment that he won't, but as long as you don't give him solid proof, he won't act. Reasonable doubt is your ally here. The main problem with Gryffindors is your emotions; everything you feel is painted across your faces for the world to see, and then you usually shout it to the world just in case they didn't notice. Don't try too hard."

This time her nod was a little rueful; she had realised years ago that part of the reason why Snape seemed to find her so annoying was that she tried too hard to impress him. He was the only teacher who had never seemed to value her intelligence, and the more harshly he criticised her, the harder she had tried to win the same regard from him that her other teachers showed her. Even when she had realised that it was the wrong approach, she'd kept trying because she didn't know any other way.

"One final point," Phineas told her. "You are supposedly quite intelligent. Use it. Think before you act, and learn to observe. You know everything you need already, but you haven't realised that you've seen it. Pay attention to what happens around you and learn to see beyond the surface. Analyse everything. Even tiny insignificant details are important."

"Thank you, sir."

"Don't thank me, girl. You're playing with fire and you're going to regret it." He paused. "You need to know a few things about Severus. Nobody is simple, and he is far more complicated than most. The first thing is loyalty. It defines much about him; he does not give much of himself easily or lightly, but when he does, it is eternal. He is as constant and as unchanging as the rotation of the earth. He will never break a promise and never turn his back on someone he considers worth his time. He is incapable of betrayal and he will never, ever forgive it."

"I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but – he's a double agent. That makes him a traitor by definition, doesn't it?"

"At least you're asking, rather than making a statement," the portrait growled. "No. Riddle did that to himself. He took Severus' loyalty and broke it, and left him free to choose a different path. He is no traitor. The second thing you need to know is his sense of honour. That is not a typical Slytherin trait. I doubt you have ever realised, but Severus has never lied to any of you. He will withhold the truth, he will twist his words to lead people to make incorrect assumptions, but he never openly lies. Equally, there are lines he won't cross, things he won't do. Watch him when he interacts with your fellow students – he knows enough about all of you to reduce you all to broken wretches, but he won't go that far. There are things demanded of him as a Death Eater that he won't do, as well. He has a strict moral code, even if it is unconventional."

Hermione was tempted to argue that, but she suddenly found herself thinking of Neville, oddly enough. Snape had always disliked him, had always continually insulted and belittled him, but... well, what had happened to Neville's parents must be common knowledge among the older generation. If the goal had been to hurt Neville, then that was the best way to do it, but Snape had never mentioned them. He had made a few snide comments about Neville's grandmother, at least until the Boggart incident in third year, but he had never referred to Frank and Alice, directly or indirectly. And while he often made vicious comments about Harry's father, he hadn't mentioned his mother that she recalled, or referred to their deaths.

Phineas nodded, apparently able to tell that she was already thinking in different ways. Hermione had a feeling that this plan of hers was going to give her a lot of headaches. The portrait continued quietly, "The final thing you need to be aware of is pain. You cannot imagine everything that Severus has been through. Nobody can, because nobody knows all of it. People respond to pain in different ways; Severus withdraws from it. He has reached the point where he genuinely does not care about physical pain in any form; he has been through so much of it that it ceases to be relevant, which is why he is able to spend his own life so easily. However, that leaves him extremely vulnerable to other types of pain. He tries to isolate himself for his own protection but he cannot shield himself from everything. He is extremely emotionally damaged in ways nobody can understand, probably not even him, and he is alive and sane purely because he has so far managed to maintain a fragile balance. Be very careful, Miss Granger. A single mistake could have catastrophic consequences. Do you begin to understand now what you are trying to do?"

Hermione swallowed. "Probably not."

"Honest, at least. Foolish, but honest." He eyed her narrowly. "What will you do now?"

She thought about it. "Try and get some sleep. When I'm rested and calm, I'll do some thinking and decide what to do." Looking up, she offered the portrait a small smile. "No impulsive jumping in, I promise. I'm not always a total Gryffindor."

He snorted. "I'll believe it when I see it. And do bear in mind that the entire war may well be won or lost depending on Severus' mental balance and how long he can maintain it. Don't make it worse."

"No pressure, then?"

"Hah. Good luck, girl – you're going to need it."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 4 of 60

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