Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 44 of 60

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Understandably, the atmosphere in the house was a little tense after all the dramatic revelations. Harry and Severus were mutually trying to avoid one another as much as possible; Ron seemed perfectly happy to stick to his best mate and keep out of the older wizard's way, which left Hermione rather caught in the middle. It wasn't a good idea for Severus to go back to isolating himself from everyone, especially in his own house, but she could certainly understand why he and Harry were a little uncomfortable around one another again.

At least they had work to do to keep them all occupied, she supposed. They all knew the basic outline of the plan now, and they would be at Headquarters with the rest of the Order for the next few days – that would probably bring its own share of complications, from the bad situation with Dumbledore to the probably very funny reaction when Mrs Weasley finally got hold of Harry, but at least they were doing something. And having other people around would reduce the awkwardness, even if it did mean that she and Severus would have to go back to separate beds for a few days, which she wasn't looking forward to.

"Severus?" she asked him softly now; the two of them were standing with Ron in the hallway, waiting for Harry to find whatever it was he was looking for upstairs.

"Hmm?" he replied somewhat distractedly, obviously thinking about something else. It was almost strange to see him back in his frock coat and his flowing robes; she had grown used to the more casual Severus she saw at home, and it was odd to see Professor Snape again. Odd, but not necessarily unpleasant, she admitted to herself - he did look impressive, like this.

"Did you want me to take my ring off before we get there?" she asked in a low voice. "I assume you probably want to keep things private for as long as possible..."

He gave her a thoughtful look before shrugging. "If it were up to me, Hermione, we'd never tell anyone," he murmured dryly. "I'm never going to want to tell them, so it's up to you."

Biting her lip, she thought about it. "How badly are people going to react?"

"I really couldn't say. I'll wager anything you like that you're going to have lots of concerned people trying to find out what I did to force you, though," he said sourly, his lip curling. "And I'm sure I'll receive a lot of predictable threats."

Hoping that for once he would be wrong, she nodded, thinking about it. Finally she said quietly, "I won't volunteer anything and I won't tell anyone, but if someone notices and asks, I'm not going to lie." She grinned. "I doubt anyone would be brave enough to ask you."

He snorted softly. "Don't be so sure. Minerva's in charge there now, remember? And I'm sure Poppy's going to pounce on whomever she sees first."

"Will you answer, or snarl until they run away?" she asked mischievously, and he rolled his eyes, not bothering to answer. "It's up to you, Severus. I don't know how friendly you are with some of them. I shouldn't think many people will notice anyway."

"I suppose we'll find out soon enough," he replied with a shrug, before raising his voice. "Potter, I swear, if you don't get down here within the next thirty seconds I'm going to tie you up and deliver you to Molly and Arthur in chains."

Headquarters positively hummed with activity, to Severus' irritation; it seemed that everyone was there, although most of them would hopefully try to stay well clear of him. Dispatching Hermione and Weasley in search of Arthur and a blood sample – he didn't care what reason they concocted for why they needed it, really; Arthur was far from stupid and wouldn't waste time with daft questions – he shooed Potter off to go and find his girlfriend or something. Free of his irksome charges, even if that did mean Hermione wasn't there either, he glanced briefly in the direction of the bedroom where Dumbledore was apparently slowly dying before shaking his head. No, not yet. Perhaps never, although he didn't think it would be that easy. Absently scratching his wrist, he headed for the library in search of Minerva instead, and was surprised and pleased when she produced a chess set.

"So, Severus, are you going to tell me what's going on now?" she asked as they settled to the game. "I've been more than patient with you, and you owe me an explanation. What is this mystery task Albus gave Harry?"

"Complicated, is what it is," he muttered, debating how much to say. "It's not safe to tell you all the details. It's risky enough that five people know – myself, Dumbledore, the Trio. I daren't tell anyone else. In essence, though, we're removing certain things that make the Dark Lord immortal. Once we get rid of them all, he can be killed." Except for whatever Dumbledore wasn't saying. One thing at a time.

"How many... things... are there? Are we talking physical objects?"

"In a sense," he replied vaguely – there was no way she would have heard of a Horcrux, but he hadn't survived this long by letting anyone know anything they didn't absolutely need to know. Paranoia had kept him alive so far and he wasn't going to abandon it now. "There were six. There's only one left now. Then, depending on the contents of those memories Dumbledore's given you for safekeeping, we should be able to kill the Dark Lord and end this once and for all."

They played in silence for a few minutes, presumably both contemplating that. Minerva McGonagall had been involved in both wars right from the start; she was only a couple of years older than Tom Riddle, if he recalled correctly. It must be strange for her to imagine not having to continue that fight any more, but it certainly couldn't be as strange as it was for Severus; he had literally had nothing else to live for, for more than half his life.

"What do the four of you need from the Order?" she asked finally.

"I don't know, Minerva. I honestly have no idea what's going to happen. It all depends on what Dumbledore's not saying." His stomach tightened for a moment; the fear of what that might be had been eating at him for months. "I don't suppose there's any chance of you letting me see those memories now?"

"None. He told me to hold them until... until afterwards... and I'm going to do as he said."

"Then I have no idea what the Order can do." He didn't bother wasting his breath arguing with her, not when she wouldn't listen.

"Why you four? Well, I know why – because you're a nuisance who likes to cause as much chaos as possible. Why Harry? He wasn't even of age when he was given this job."

Severus shrugged. "He's Dumbledore's blue-eyed boy. I wasn't aware there was another reason. I agree it's a little strange, but so is Dumbledore; nothing he does has surprised me in a long time." Except for a certain revelation delivered to Potter, anyway. Best not to think of that; he changed the subject. "How is the old man?"

"Ill," she replied bluntly, looking a little sad. "I... he seldom sees anyone but Poppy, now. I don't think it will be much longer."

Severus only nodded, not reacting to the sorrow in her voice. He knew everyone else would mourn Dumbledore, but he didn't plan to shed any tears for the old bastard, not now. There were very few people in the world he would grieve for, and he wasn't sure Dumbledore had ever been on that list. He focused on the chess game, letting the silence drag out until it became less uncomfortable and more companionable.

"Are you going to tell me what you're up to now?" she asked conversationally.

"I just did," he replied slowly.

"I don't mean the four of you. I mean you, specifically, Severus." Looking up from the chessboard, she fixed him with a gimlet-eyed stare that made him feel uncomfortably close to twelve years old again.

"What is it you want to know?" he asked cautiously.

"Who you are. Because frankly, Severus, I've never really been sure." She kept staring at him, with a focused intensity that made it obvious she could transform into a cat. He met her stare for stare, but it was an effort. "I don't think any of us were surprised when you joined the Death Eaters..."

The scar on his left arm started to itch furiously. Severus ignored it, as he ignored the old, bitter anger stirring somewhere deep; as if he'd had a choice. Voldemort and the Death Eaters were the only ones who would have him. Old wounds, and older scars, and no point dwelling on that now. He'd made his peace with it as much as possible.

Minerva continued quietly, "And then Albus told us – some of us – that you had changed sides, that you were now his spy. He wouldn't say why; he never has said why."

You would never have believed it if he had, Severus mused. Imagining how they would react to that particular revelation had provided him with a lot of dark amusement over the years. He only shrugged in response now. "I had my reasons."

"And since then," she continued as though he hadn't spoken, "you've been his creature. Oh, you've snarled and snapped and rebelled and found a thousand ways to oppose him, and you've always been the only one who could seriously infuriate him..."

"So nice to be appreciated," he muttered darkly.

"...But when he's given you a direct order, you've obeyed. Reluctantly, wriggling around it as much as possible and dragging your heels at every step, but you have. Until now. For some reason, Severus, you've turned your back on the only thing you've ever taken seriously... in order to follow a boy you have utterly despised from the moment you laid eyes on him, if not before then. So I would like to know why."

When he didn't answer, she snorted and returned her attention to the chessboard. "What you said about the plan not making sense is one thing. You're right, frankly, nobody could have expected you to adhere to the original plan – even Albus admitted it, after we'd discussed it. But I'll believe that You-Know-Who has decided to retire from world domination and become a ballet dancer before I'll believe that you would ever willingly follow Harry Potter."

"Now there's a horrifying mental image," he drawled, mostly out of reflex as his brain spun hurriedly into action. "The Dark Lord would look quite dreadful in a pink tutu and tights." He sat back and sighed. "If this is your long-winded way of saying that I'm a traitor, I've heard it all before, many, many times."

"It's not. I've never trusted you as far as I could throw you, but if you were going to betray us all you could have done so at any point, and you've certainly had plenty of opportunities to kill Harry since he's been living in your house. But I want an explanation, Severus."

"And I want a pile of gold higher than Hagrid's hut," he retorted irritably. "I picked the plan that had the greatest chance of success. I fail to see why that is so suspicious."

"You hate Harry," Minerva said flatly. "You have hated him since the moment you heard his name. You have hated him more intensely than I have ever seen you hate anyone – including James. You hate the boy more strongly than you did his father, for whatever warped reason."

He blinked, wondering briefly if that was true. He didn't think so, but it wasn't out of the realms of possibility, he had to admit. It was a very complicated situation, after all. "So? I don't have to like someone in order to work with them. Which is just as well, really."

"Severus, please don't make the mistake of thinking that I have gone senile," his colleague said crisply. "For you to willingly go anywhere near the boy, let alone take him into your house and spend months with him and his friends... there's a reason."

He returned his attention to the chessboard, noting absently that he could win in a dozen moves – not that either of them were really playing with their full skill. His mind raced, debating furiously; Minerva didn't trust him, and she was both strong and skilled, so he didn't much like his chances of managing to either Obliviate or Confund her. The Imperius curse would work – she wasn't good enough to block that, not from him – but an Unforgiveable was a bit of an overreaction to someone asking uncomfortable questions, even if it was tempting.

"Obviously there's a reason," he drawled, moving his rook. "I have never done anything without a reason in my entire life. Why do you seem to think that I will tell you what that reason is?"

"Because if you don't, Severus, I am going to take my suspicions to the rest of the Order, and when this mess is over, we will hunt you down." Her voice cracked like a whip, and ice slid down his spine. Breathing out slowly, he gathered the dark, quiet stillness of his mental ocean into him, feeling his muscles simultaneously tensing and relaxing as his senses extended in readiness.

"I don't take kindly to being threatened, Minerva," he said quietly, his voice emerging flat and cold. "What are you accusing me of?"

"Nothing... yet." Sitting back, she stared at him intently. "Which of them is it, Severus?"

He choked, giving her a horrified look. "Which – bloody hell, woman! Please tell me you're not suggesting..." He couldn't even finish the sentence, swallowing bile. "I may actually be sick." That wasn't an exaggeration; he could taste vomit.

"I didn't think it was either of the boys, but I had to ask," she muttered, sighing. "I hoped I was wrong. It's Hermione, then, is it? It had to be one of them. Nothing else makes any sense."

Severus tried to sneer at her, but most of his mind was still gibbering with horror at the notion of him and Potter. That was just too Freudian for words and unbelievably disturbing on every conceivable level, and quite a few inconceivable levels into the bargain. Swallowing hard and fighting to hang onto his breakfast, he cleared his throat and gave her an irritated look. "If you're quite finished giving me new nightmares, I'll ask again. What are you accusing me of?"

"I repeat, don't treat me as though I'm senile," she snapped. He recognised the look in her eyes now; this was the Head of Gryffindor bristling in the defence of one of her favourite cubs, and that meant he didn't have a snowball's chance in Hell.

Flexing his forearm to feel his wand in his sleeve, he began preparing himself, narrowing his eyes. "If you really thought I had designs on Miss Granger you would have tried to hex me by now. Don't be ridiculous."

"Severus, a blind man could see she's had a crush on you for the last year!"

For a moment, he wanted to laugh. A blind man, hmm? And what does that make me? He certainly hadn't seen it, not until Dilys told him. He arched a disdainful eyebrow. "She used to have a crush on Lockhart," he pointed out, smirking a little. "I'm about as far away from him as it's possible to get while still being a human male."

Minerva glared at him. "Don't be facetious. This is serious. If you've taken advantage..."

He searched for the anger that her words should have caused, and to his surprise he didn't find any. Only the quiet knowledge that she was wrong, and... He sighed and gave her a tired look, feeling rather sad. "You've known me since I was eleven, Minerva. Do you really believe I would do that?"

Her silence was its own answer, and he looked away, staring down at the chessboard. That hurt, but only for a moment; he could hear Hermione's voice. "I do hate being smarter than everyone else. It's not my fault they were all idiots who didn't appreciate you." He relaxed a little and pushed the pain away; Minerva had never really known him, not truly. Even finding him unconscious in a pool of his own blood in a corridor after he'd slit his own wrists hadn't taught her anything about him. It didn't matter.

"I haven't forced myself on her," he said wearily. "If I had, don't you think she – or one of her little friends – might have said something? They've all been back here without me, more than once. One of them would have told you, and they wouldn't have returned to my house. Besides, they're Gryffindors to their bones; all three of them would have fought me. I'm good, but I have to sleep sometimes."

She exhaled heavily. "She's a young girl, Severus, and you've been a master of manipulating people for decades. I wasn't suggesting force."

"Young doesn't mean stupid," he snapped, "and rape is rape whether it involves physical force or emotional blackmail. I strongly recommend you speak to her before you accuse me of anything else, Minerva, because if you insult me like that again I will make you pay for it."

"So there is something going on." Her eyes flashed, and her accent was thickening slightly. "Merlin, Severus, do you know what you've done?"

"Rather better than you do," he said coldly, focusing on keeping his temper. If he started a duel now he'd have half the Order attacking him within seconds. Angrily he scattered the chess pieces with his hand, ignoring their squeaks of protest, and stood up. "How dare you. For the first time in my entire pitiful, sorry existence, I finally have something good in my life, and I will not let you or anyone else take it away from me. I have done nothing wrong." Abruptly he choked on a bitter laugh. "But then, when has that ever mattered?"


"Shut up. Yes, your petty suspicions are right, as if that's anything to be proud of. She did have a crush on me, and that has become something more. Consensually so. I have not coerced her in any way. We are both consenting adults and I am no longer her teacher, nor did anything untoward happen on the school grounds." Technically, that wasn't a lie; the Room of Requirement was a manifestation of Hogwarts Castle, it had not been built by human hands and it wasn't officially part of the school, since it was supposed to be off limits to students. Therefore, that first wonderful kiss didn't count. It was a technicality, but one he was prepared to hide behind. Their relationship hadn't been consummated until they had both left school, and that was what was important.

Minerva was standing by this time, glaring into his eyes. It was rare for anyone to make eye contact with him for more than a few seconds, he reflected absently in the small corner of his mind that never seemed to shut up; most people found his eyes a little unnerving even when he wasn't deliberately trying to make them uncomfortable. "I hope for your sake that you're telling the truth, Severus Snape," she told him thickly. "Because if you're lying to me, if you've done anything to that girl, I'll see you dead."

"Talk to her," he said coldly. "And when you have, I expect a lengthy apology. In fact, it need not wait for you to speak to Hermione. Phineas!"

"There's no need to shout," the portrait drawled, moving into view and smirking at Minerva's startled expression. "Good morning, Severus. You're looking... well."

Severus found himself smiling despite his anger; this was going to be fun. Stepping back, he crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow at the portrait who had been one of his only allies. "I should hope so. I assume you've been listening the entire time?"

"Of course. I did consider following Miss Granger, but I did speak to her recently, whereas I haven't seen you for a few months."

"And Dilys ordered you to update her on my... health," he finished, his lips twitching.

Minerva gave the portrait an unfriendly look. "You knew about this? It is your duty to report "

"Oh, stop overreacting, woman," Phineas told her, sneering. "You couldn't be more wrong. Severus and his young woman spent months making eyes at one another when they thought the other one wasn't looking, and until fairly recently neither of them realised it was mutual. Nothing inappropriate happened in school, and if you believe you're going to talk Miss Granger into leaving him now, then I have the deeds to London Bridge to sell you. I can't think of anything that would persuade that young Gryffindor to go anywhere. And if you must know, Mr Potter and Mr Weasley are fully aware of the situation. They seem to approve, in a slightly horrified sort of way."

Severus took a few moments to deeply enjoy the stunned expression on his former co-worker's face, giving her his most insufferably smug and arrogant smirk when she turned to gape at him. He was seriously annoyed at having to admit to anything so soon, and offended by her accusation even though he had more or less expected it, but this was still turning out to be quite fun, in a twisted manner.

After an embarrassingly long pause, Minerva cleared her throat and started fidgeting, avoiding his eyes now. At least she had the decency to be ashamed of herself, he reflected, allowing himself to relax fractionally. "Well?" he asked crisply.

She sighed. "I apologise. But you can't blame me for assuming the worst. And I will certainly be talking to Hermione when I see her."

I suppose that's the best I'm going to get. He rolled his eyes. "Why do I think I'm going to get very, very bored of this conversation by the seventh time I have to have it?" he asked rhetorically. Maybe they should both just elope to South America or something and be done with it. "I would advise you to be a little more circumspect when asking Hermione if I assaulted her," he added coolly. "Her temper is easily a match for yours, and she has a protective streak a mile wide." Although that was a fight he wouldn't mind seeing. He did love hearing her defending him.

Narrowing her eyes, Minerva gave him a look that was partly annoyed and partly guilty. "Make sure you don't hurt her in any way, Severus. I can't believe you've been this foolish. I hope you've thought about this."

Of course not. She was just the closest woman available to scratch my itch. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes again – or draw his wand; he was getting fed up now – he sighed. "I spent the best part of a year thinking about it." And the best part of another year not thinking about it, too. "Astonishingly enough, Minerva, it did occur to me that there might be a few problems. Neither Hermione nor I are stupid, and we know what we're doing. I didn't go into this lightly."

He didn't much like the way she was looking at him now, a weighing, measuring sort of stare that was more speculative than anything else. "This is serious, isn't it?"

"There's no need to sound so surprised," he growled. "I am human, you know."

She laughed softly and shook her head. "Oh, stop sulking. It doesn't suit you, and you have to admit it's reasonable for anyone to doubt you. You've never looked twice at a woman since I've known you; for a while I wondered if you went the other way, although you've never looked at a man either."

Ignoring the twitch under his eye, Severus gave her a disgusted look. "And who was there at Hogwarts for me to look at?" he asked irritably. He had no interest in being anyone's toy-boy and all his female colleagues were quite a bit older than he was, not to mention the fact that most of them had at one time or another given him harsh and undeserved detentions or turned a blind eye to the bullies who stalked him. And, of course, the minor problem of his being an ugly git that everyone disliked.

"Dolores liked you," she replied with an almost mischievous smile, and he shuddered.

"I would actually almost prefer Potter. You're a sick woman. Are we done here? I need to go and be violently ill somewhere." And he was dying for a smoke.

"For the moment, yes, although we're certainly not finished with this conversation. How long are you going to be staying here?"

"A few days, perhaps. I'm not sure." Until Dumbledore died, was the honest answer, but even he wasn't enough of a bastard to say that. About to leave, he paused and turned his head to glance at her sideways. "Does anyone else share your... suspicions?" he asked warily. Hermione was well liked, and the last thing he wanted was the Order banding together to lynch him. Thank fuck Moody's dead.

"I doubt it, luckily for you. I will tell Molly – don't look at me like that. She's unofficially my second in command now, and she needs to know what's going on with the four of you even if you would rather she didn't. She would find out anyway, especially if young Mr Weasley knows. I won't tell anyone else, though. Does anyone else know?"

"Poppy Pomfrey does," Phineas provided from the wall; the portrait was clearly enjoying watching this.

Minerva looked irritated. "I'll be having words with her as well, then. All right, Severus, you can go."

He hadn't been so glad to leave a room in a long time.

Hermione didn't even get a chance to unpack before being cornered; she had barely put her bag down on the bed she had used before when there was a knock at the door, and as soon as she turned around she found herself being hugged by Poppy Pomfrey. "Hello," she managed breathlessly when the older witch let her go, smiling.

"Hello," the nurse replied gravely, smiling back at her. "It's good to see you, dear. We didn't get a chance to talk on your birthday, really. How are you?"

"I'm fine, thank you."

"You look well. In fact, you look blooming. Am I right to assume a certain man is responsible for that lovely smile?" the mediwitch asked archly.

"As if Phineas hasn't already told you," she retorted, flicking a hand to non-verbally shut the door before sitting on the bed as Poppy came to sit beside her.

"True," Poppy agreed unrepentantly. "I still want to hear from you, though, since there is no chance of Severus telling me anything if I manage to hunt him down. Things are going well, I assume? I don't think I've ever seen you so happy."

"Couldn't be better," Hermione replied, leaning back against the wall and trying to stop smiling. "Well, it could, I suppose, if we didn't have to worry about the war and if Harry and Ron weren't living with us and pretending they're not bothered by it, but still."

"I can imagine that might be a little awkward," the nurse observed dryly. "Harry and Severus under the same roof was difficult enough somewhere the size of Hogwarts. Where are the boys, anyway?"

"Ginny ambushed us as soon as we got through the front door," Hermione reported with a grin. "She jumped on Harry and dragged him off somewhere. Ron and I are supposed to be talking to Mr Weasley when we find him, but it's a bit crowded around here at the moment, isn't it? Ron's off playing with his brothers, I think. I'll go and find them later on. If Mrs Weasley lets Harry live, anyway. I don't understand why she was so angry – is it just because she's protective of Ginny? I mean, she adores Harry."

"It's because Miss Weasley isn't of age yet," Poppy explained. "Technically we abide by the Muggle age of consent laws, but realistically the legal age for any sexual activity is seventeen. It's both more and less serious than it is amongst Muggles; Harry won't be in any official trouble, but unofficially he's going to pay for it quite heavily. Ah, to be young again... In any case, we were discussing you and Severus. Have there been any problems between you? I do know what that man's like."

"Phineas asked that too," she noted, shaking her head. "No, everything's been fine. I think Severus is worried about doing something to spoil things, so he's been on his best behaviour, and he's starting to relax and accept that I know what I'm doing by now. The biggest problem has been him not believing me, but he's getting over that, slowly." Pessimistic bastard that he is, she added fondly.

"I'm glad to hear it. He's as stubborn as a rock, but he's not an idiot, most of the time. So when did the two of you finally give in?"

"Harry's birthday. Well, just before."

"Ah. That makes sense. Almost two months, then?"

"It seems longer than that, actually, but yes," she confirmed, fiddling with her hair idly.

Poppy frowned at her, before suddenly reaching out and catching her wrist. Startled, Hermione tried to pull away before realising what had caught the nurse's eye, and a moment later she found herself enveloped in another hug.

"I take it congratulations are in order?" the woman asked, trying to sound unconcerned despite her smile.

"Thank you," she replied almost shyly. It was nice to find someone who was happy for her; Ron and Harry just seemed confused. Then again, they were teenage boys, and probably didn't even realise they were supposed to be happy.

"When did this happen? Phineas certainly didn't mention it. I shall have to have a word with him."

"He probably doesn't know," Hermione said in the portrait's defence, smiling. "It was a couple of nights ago, after I came back from here on my birthday."

"Have you set a date?"

"No, not yet. We haven't exactly talked about the future very much, with everything else going on." She wriggled back on the bed to sit more comfortably against the wall, drawing her knees up under her chin and wrapping her arms around them, tilting her hand to look at her ring again. "Once the war's done, I want to go back to Hogwarts and take my NEWTs, and Severus agrees. He says he won't go back under any circumstances, so I suppose it'll be after I graduate. I still don't know what I want to do when I leave school, really, though."

"I'm not surprised he doesn't want to go back," Poppy noted. "He never did like teaching. It wasn't so bad with the older students, the ones with the interest and the skill, but Severus never had the patience for the younger ones who were only in the class because it was compulsory. As for you, though, Hermione – I know you originally only came to me because you wanted to be able to help your friends if they got hurt, but you do have a real knack for Healing, you know. If you decide to continue with it, I'll gladly write you a reference."

"Thank you," she replied gratefully. "I have thought about it. I suppose there's no rush to decide, though. It's going to be a while yet before everything's over, I think. That reminds me... how is Professor Dumbledore? Phineas said it wasn't a good prognosis..."

Poppy sighed, looking a little sad. "No, it's not. He's too ill for visitors now, really. I don't think it's going to be much longer. I'm glad Severus is here – Minerva explained about the Vow. Do you know if it's still in force?"

"No. Severus hasn't said anything about it. I told him what Phineas said and he just nodded and changed the subject; if he knows, he's not saying, but I don't think he does." Hermione hesitated for a moment before meeting the older witch's eyes. "What happens to Professor Dumbledore if the Vow isn't in force?"

After a short pause, the nurse sighed again. "Two weeks, perhaps. Certainly no longer than that. I'm doing what I can, but the curse is spreading rapidly now. I can keep him free of pain, most of the time, but it's not easy. I'm not licensed to take action, Hermione; nobody who works exclusively with children is. Only high-standing Healers have that sort of permission anyway."

She translated that, silently. Madam Pomfrey couldn't use the Killing Curse to give Dumbledore a quick death. That meant Phineas was right and Severus was the only one who could. Whether he would do so without the Unbreakable Vow forcing him into it was another matter entirely. At least he knew what was happening; she didn't want to have to tell him.

"By the way, Hermione, before I go... not many people know about you and Severus yet, do they?"

"No. You, Phineas, Harry and Ron. And Dilys, I suppose; I'm sure Phineas told her." Oh, how she wished she could have witnessed that.

"I'm sure you're aware that there will be a lot of things said, when it becomes public," the nurse said carefully, and Hermione nodded. "It may help if you remember that I can confirm that you were still a virgin in May. I don't record it officially, but it is picked up in your health checks, and if a girl loses their virginity too young I have a discreet talk with them to make sure nothing untoward happened. It means you can at least prove you were of age and that you didn't take any examinations or anything so none of your academic work was compromised. It won't spare you the gossip, of course, but it will at least negate any possible legal trouble."

"I didn't know that. Thank you," she said, relieved. "That will help." And at least Rita Skeeter was still unregistered, so she still had that hold over the woman. Other journalists would probably write filth about her, but she didn't think many would dare badmouth Severus too much in case he came looking for them. If neither of them got into any official trouble over this, they could live with rumours and bitching.

Going in search of Ron later – it was probably time to rescue Harry before Mrs Weasley finally found his hiding place – Hermione encountered Severus on the stairs, looking somewhat harassed and irritable. "Poppy spotted my ring," she told him in an undertone, smiling at him. "She'll probably try and hug you when she sees you. Be warned."

"She had better not," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Unfortunately I suspect Minerva isn't going to want to hug you when she gets hold of you. You might want to stay out of her way."

"She knows?" Hermione asked in dismay. Her Head of House probably wasn't going to approve.

He sighed. "She worked out – accurately – that if I was willing to follow Potter, it could only be because I was interested in one of you three. Short of attacking her and modifying her memory quite heavily, there wasn't much I could do. I didn't even have to confirm it. It might help convince her that I'm not playing games if she spots the ring, I suppose, but I wouldn't count on it." He sounded really quite annoyed; obviously the discussion hadn't gone well.

"I can tell her that much. Was it that bad?"

He shrugged a thin shoulder uneasily. "It could have been worse. She has never had a particularly high opinion of me, and she is fiercely protective of her favourites. She is at least convinced that I didn't take advantage of you, or she would have hexed me."

Attempting to lighten the mood, she grinned at him. "I don't have a problem with you taking advantage of me."

A brief glimmer of humour sparkled in his dark eyes for a moment and he relaxed slightly. "I don't advise telling her that. Although it might be worth it to see her face... for a widow she can be surprisingly prudish sometimes."

"She's still going to be my teacher when I go back," she pointed out, privately somewhat surprised to learn that McGonagall had been married. "I'd rather not upset her too much. I'll talk to her later and convince her that I'm fine. Honestly, if even Harry's convinced you're not evil, I don't see why anyone else should have a problem. Anyway, speaking of taking advantage of me, will I see you later?" she asked hopefully.

He hesitated for a moment before slowly shaking his head. "Too risky," he said reluctantly. "There seems to be a full house here right now."

"You'll have to make it up to me once we're home, then."

The slow smile that earned her made her feel warm all over. "I think I can manage that."

Severus lay awake with his arms folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling pensively. There was no point in trying to sleep; even if he did manage it, his nightmares would be horrific. They always were, when he slept alone. Besides, he found that he couldn't get comfortable – his body couldn't remember how he usually slept and every position felt wrong. It was tempting, very tempting, to sneak down the corridor to Hermione, but the house was surprisingly busy; every bedroom held at least one Order member.

Being caught now would be very bad. He wasn't sure if Minerva had cornered Hermione yet, but since he was still alive and uncastrated she seemed to be convinced that he wasn't quite as much of a villain as she had thought. Molly Weasley... well, he wasn't sure how she would react. It could go either way, really; she wasn't always easy to predict, even for him. As for Poppy, well, the woman was insane, frankly. There had been absolutely no need to hug him like that, especially since she knew damned well that he hated it. At least she hadn't ruffled his hair. Anyway, nobody else would react so benignly, and he really couldn't be bothered to get into any more fights; he didn't have the heart for it any more.

He had a horrible feeling he knew why the Order had all gathered; he hoped he was wrong, but the timing was too much of a coincidence. They, too, were waiting for Dumbledore to die. Irritably he scratched his wrist again, shifting uneasily, before abandoning all pretence of trying to rest. Sitting up, he crossed his legs loosely, leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes, his breathing automatically slowing to the regular even rhythm of meditation as his mind emptied and his thoughts stopped. Don't think about it yet, not until he had to.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 44 of 60

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