Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 5 of 60

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It took Hermione another two days, but the idea finally came to her during a History of Magic lesson – the source of some of her best ideas, actually, despite her being the only student who ever bothered to pay attention; her brain ticked over in the background even as she took notes. Madam Pomfrey had told her a possible solution during one of their first discussions about Snape's health: 'he goes running most mornings, I believe.'

After dinner she found an empty room and asked one of the portraits to ask Phineas Nigellus to speak with her, then sat impatiently until the former Headmaster arrived. He gave her a lofty stare and enquired, "From the way you are bouncing in your chair, I take it you have thought of a way to approach your esteemed Professor? Do enlighten me."

"I want to ask you a couple of questions about his habits, actually."

"I told you, Granger, I'm not going to spoon-feed you."

"I'm not asking you to," she retorted. "I want to ask two questions. They both have very short answers. Then I'll leave you alone."

He sighed elaborately. "Fine."

"What time does he usually get up in the mornings?"

Phineas narrowed his eyes and almost seemed to smile. "Ah... I see. It varies, but it is usually hideously early; he is something of a natural insomniac even when he isn't at war, and obviously it is worse now. However, he generally leaves his rooms at around half past five, quarter to six."

Ouch. That was earlier than she had hoped, but it wasn't the end of the world; she'd just have to spend a little less time reading every night until she adjusted. "And how far does he usually travel before coming back to start his day?"

"I don't know," the portrait replied calmly, "since I can't see outside. I believe you will need to ask someone who spends more time in the grounds than I do."

Hagrid. Hermione grinned; the gamekeeper was away at the moment, but he wouldn't be gone forever. "Thank you for the advice."

"I advise you to get some practice first," he replied, giving her a rather insulting once-over. "He is usually out for around an hour." She made a face at him in response, but conceded the point. Battered and dented though he was, Snape was pretty fit, and if he spent that entire hour jogging she was definitely going to need some practice before she could hope to match him.

Not long after Hermione's sixteenth birthday, she received further education on the cost of being a double agent, when she dragged herself yawning to the hospital wing in the middle of the night in answer to Dilys' call and found Madam Pomfrey and Snape apparently in the middle of an argument. "What's wrong this time?" she asked through another yawn.

"Nothing, as I have been saying for the last twenty minutes," Snape growled in a rough voice, looking and sounding about as tired as she felt, although there was another edge to his tone that she didn't recognise.

"You're covered in blood, sir," she pointed out, slightly concerned despite herself. "That doesn't look like nothing."

After a long and somewhat uncomfortable pause, during which Dilys vanished from her frame and Madam Pomfrey fidgeted unnecessarily with her wand, Snape cleared his throat and said quietly, "It's not my blood."

Hermione stared at him blankly for a long moment before her brain woke up and she realised what was going on. Swallowing hard, she managed a faint, "...Oh," before faltering, unable to think of anything else to say.

Snape looked away, avoiding her gaze and staring at the floor, his face as emotionless as ever save for a faint tightening at the corners of his dark eyes. He flinched slightly when Madam Pomfrey took hold of his jaw once more and lifted his face, but made no protest as the nurse returned to gently cleaning away the red droplets that spattered his pale skin.

Swallowing again, Hermione looked away, wrapping her arms around herself and shivering with the sudden chill that seemed to have settled over her. She couldn't bring herself to look at him again, restlessly pacing around the Infirmary as the mediwitch finished examining him and dismissed him for the night with a gentle admonishment to be careful; she heard Snape's footsteps pass close by her, and he paused for a moment before sighing almost inaudibly and walking past her to the door. Only when it had closed behind him did she turn around again.

Madam Pomfrey looked at her steadily. "This is another side of the reality of life as a double agent," she said quietly. "You know the sorts of activities that the Death Eaters practice. Professor Snape must participate in things that he would sooner not do in order to maintain his cover."

"He killed someone tonight," she said thickly, startled by the roughness of her voice.

"Probably," the nurse agreed softly. "I don't intend to ask. If it was important strategically he will inform the Headmaster, but if not he would prefer to keep silent."

"I'm not surprised," she muttered. Oh, everyone made jokes about Snape, about how he frequently murdered students and harvested their organs for Potions ingredients and about how he had fond daydreams of slaughtering them all in gruesome ways, but... he really was a murderer. She shivered again. "Why was he up here? He didn't look hurt."

"He wasn't. Hell will freeze over before he'd ever admit it, but sometimes he does want company. His excuse tonight was to check on my Potions stores, I think, but I don't bother listening any more. He wanted to see me – not me specifically, but someone who knows what's going on and doesn't judge him."

"How can you act as if it's normal?" she asked in a small voice.

"What else would you have me do, Miss Granger? I don't know who it was. I couldn't have done anything about it if I did. Their death will have been quicker and cleaner than it would have been had another Death Eater been the one to kill them. Thousands of innocents die during wars; the only way to stop it is to work to end the war as quickly as possible, which we are doing. My having hysterics certainly won't help Severus cope. He feels like enough of a monster already without my treating him like one."

Remembering his dark eyes, Hermione shook her head. "He doesn't feel anything."

"Yes, he does," the nurse said very softly, meeting her eyes. "He doesn't show it, it's true, but somewhere deep inside, the things he has to do hurt him in ways I don't think anyone can understand. Professor Snape is a human being, Hermione, with human emotions and feelings. He has a conscience, a heart and a soul, and a very clear concept of right and wrong. However much he tries to pretend otherwise, he is strongly affected by the life he has to lead. Whatever else he may be, he is only human, just as you are. Try to remember that."

It was hardly unusual to find Hermione in the library during a moment of free time, of course, but on this occasion she wasn't here for homework or for her own amusement; she had a different mission in mind. Resisting the urge to look around furtively, she crossed the floor as calmly and casually as possible to the shelves that held old Hogwarts yearbooks, some dating back centuries, and ran her fingers lightly over the spines of the massed volumes as she moved to the slightly more recent ones and took down the book for the graduates of 1978.

Really, she supposed as she settled at a table some way from the door or the other students working nearby, it was odd that she and the boys had never looked at this before. After all, Harry's parents were in here, and Sirius and Lupin. Delaying the real reason why she was looking at it now, she turned to the beginning and looked for them first.

Sirius grinned insolently out of his photo, handsome and almost laughing, reminding her briefly that she had actually sort of fancied him during her stay at Headquarters the previous summer. Even knowing some of his relatives, she couldn't really see anything familiar in his features, although admittedly Phineas was several generations removed and she hadn't seen any of the others personally except for Tonks, who could look like anything she chose. The young Gryffindor looked happy and carefree and clearly had the rest of his life before him; every inch the ideal Hogwarts graduate, in fact.

Lily Evans was the next familiar name she found, and Hermione suddenly felt as though she had been punched in the stomach, barely managing to hold back a gasp of shock. Evans. No wonder the name had sounded familiar! Snape had been friends with Harry's mum? "Christ," she whispered faintly, swallowing. "No wonder nobody wanted to tell me." It didn't make sense, though. Why on earth would Snape have been friends with a Muggleborn Gryffindor girl? Oh God. What would Harry say if he knew? Well, she certainly had no intention of ever telling her friend. He and Snape loathed one another quite enough as it was – and maybe this was part of the reason why. Maybe it was tied up with why Snape had hated James.

It was all too much to think about now, and she did her best to put it out of her mind as she looked at the pretty redhead smiling shyly out of the picture at her with the Head Girl's badge gleaming on her robe. Harry really did have his mother's eyes, she saw; the vibrant green was even more startling when matched with pale skin and bright auburn hair. Lily too looked like a model student, pretty and popular and happy. Trying to imagine her being friends with Snape, even though the friendship had apparently ended some time before these photos were taken, just made her head hurt.

She leafed slowly through the photos of smiling, happy students. The next name she recognised was Remus Lupin, and she smiled a little to see the teenage werewolf grinning a bit lopsidedly at her. She could see in his face the shadow of the man he would become, in a way she hadn't been able to see with Sirius, and he didn't seem as worn or as haunted as he would later. He lacked his friend's good looks, but he looked almost cute, in a way that reminded her a little of Neville, the same sort of earnest nerdiness that was oddly endearing.

Peter Pettigrew's photo reflexively made her shiver a little, but the boy grinning out of the picture at her bore little resemblance to the adult Wormtail. He was chubby and his features looked somehow unfinished, as though he was younger than he was and hadn't finished developing yet, although there was a certain rodent-like cast to his nose and mouth already. He certainly didn't look like the sort of boy who would sell his best friends to Voldemort just a few years later, just an excitable youth who wasn't quite sure of himself.

By contrast, James Potter looked very certain of himself, lounging casually against the edge of his photo. His resemblance to Harry was startling, from messy hair to easy smile, although he possessed a strong air of self-confidence and an assurance that his son lacked. Harry always seemed slightly diffident, and James clearly didn't. Then again, given that he was posing with the House Cup and the Quidditch Cup and had the Head Boy's badge pinned to his robes and had been dating someone who looked like Lily Evans, she supposed it was hardly surprising that he should look so confident and pleased with life.

Slowly, she turned another couple of pages, and her eye finally caught the name she had originally been looking for; Severus Snape. He stared sullenly out of the photograph at her, looking very much as he did now despite his youth; the too-thin features showing the high cheekbones too clearly, the long dirty hair partially hiding his face – cut rather more raggedly here than it was now; evidently he had still been learning how to cut it himself – and the oversized hooked nose that looked even more out of place on a teenager. He looked less gaunt, less tired and haggard, but his skin still held that sallow and not very healthy tone and his uniform looked shabby and worn. But his eyes...

Hermione leaned closer to the picture after a hasty glance around to make sure nobody was watching her table, trying to make out the shadows in his dark gaze. It was very hard to see; this photo was seventeen years old, after all, and not very big. Snape, unlike every other student in the book, did not look happy or excited by his future; he looked largely emotionless, actually, although it wasn't the established blankness of a practiced Occlumens yet, but there was definitely something else in his eyes – a sense of age, she realised, eyes that had seen too much for his age already. Something in the resentful twist of his thin lips suggested anger, certainly, and she could clearly see the echo of the adult Snape's all too familiar malicious sneer; that bitterness was reflected in his eyes, but his expression seemed bleaker, almost resigned. Overall, his attitude suggested that he too had his future stretched out before him and he wasn't looking forward to it. He certainly looked like a Death Eater in the making, but it didn't look like he really wanted it. He looked rather lost, the way he hunched his shoulders and held his head so his hair hung over his face seeming strangely vulnerable.

She bit her lip to stop herself snorting aloud. Don't be stupid. It's just an old photo. Stop projecting. He couldn't possibly have known what would happen in the future. Rolling her eyes at herself, she moved on, past the last few students and into the rest of the yearbook.

Despite herself, she studied the OWL and NEWT grades for each student, wondering how her own marks were going to compare. Lily and Remus had both done very well, all O's and E's, and James and Sirius weren't far behind, but Peter had clearly lacked his friends' brains and his results were mostly A's. Snape's results made her stare; he'd got Outstandings in every single subject. She knew he was intelligent, but surely few students ever managed to achieve that – although admittedly part of her certainly hoped to do just that.

Most of the rest of the book was filled with more candid photos of the students from various points in their school careers; her instant favourite was a shot of the Marauders in about third or fourth year, playfully wrestling for position on a table as they posed and grinned at the camera. There was a lovely shot of James and Lily with their Head Boy and Girl badges, too, smiling at each other, and one of Sirius aged about fifteen brandishing the Quidditch Cup over his head rather dangerously in one hand as he attempted to get a sheepish-looking Remus in a headlock with the other arm, and Lily aged perhaps twelve with a couple of other girls in Gryffindor scarves cheering from the Quidditch stands...

Flicking through the pages of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw students that she didn't know, Hermione frowned. There were a few shots of Slytherin students wearing their green and silver ties, but Snape wasn't in any of them. She eventually found him lurking in the background of another group shot; scanning the names underneath, she shivered to realise that all these proud and happy boys had gone on to become Death Eaters, and looked away to focus on Snape. He had his hands shoved into his pockets and was scowling, clearly not wanting to be in the picture, skulking off to one side rather than being part of the group. As far as she could see, it was the only other photograph of him in the whole book.

Pensively, Hermione closed the yearbook and replaced it on the shelf. She wasn't sure that this bit of research had been very enlightening, but it had given her a few more things to think about.

Severus was not pleased to find Umbridge waiting in his classroom when he arrived to remove the stasis charms protecting the fifth-years' half-completed Strengthening Solutions and organise the needed ingredients and equipment for the next stage. She had warned him that he was due for inspection this week, and some part of him had known that of course it would be this particular class, but he was still deeply annoyed. His results spoke for themselves; Hogwarts' Potions grades were higher than any other wizarding institute, one reason why he was allowed to get away with behaving as he did. Bastard or not, somewhat to his own surprise he was a good teacher, if not a liked one. And his list of academic credentials was about as long as his forearm by now. This ludicrous notion of inspections was an insult.

Ignoring her as much as possible, he began setting up the classroom, recalling Minerva's description of her own inspection with a suppressed smirk. How he would love to give himself free rein here... he wagered he could have her stammering and blushing like a first year by the end of the lesson. But no, he had to behave himself. Up to a point, at least.

She was standing directly behind him to watch what he was doing; Severus almost snorted. He was a master of intimidation and used such techniques himself; they wouldn't work on him. Besides, he might be thin as a rail and not quite six feet tall but he was still a lot taller than the toad and it wasn't difficult to move just enough to completely block her view, suppressing another smirk as he heard her breathing change with frustration. Idiot woman.

"Are you prepared for inspection, Severus?" she asked finally, and he mentally awarded himself the first point for making her speak first, although he did wish she wouldn't use his first name. If he had his way, nobody would use it; he didn't consider anyone a close enough friend to be granted the privilege, frankly. Certainly not Dolores sodding Umbridge, Fudge's pet toad.

Turning, he raised an eyebrow. "Surely preparing to do something unusual would negate the purpose of inspection?" he replied silkily. "I have more confidence in my teaching methods than that." Besides, she would probably enjoy his usual teaching demeanour, gruesome though the thought was. He paced to a dim corner of the classroom. "You should be able to observe adequately from here," he told her, drawing his wand to conjure a chair for her before she could. In another man, that might be taken as a polite gesture; Severus gleefully created the most uncomfortable seat he could envisage, hard and unyielding, narrow enough to make it difficult to settle on and just high enough to be inconvenient for the toad's short legs. Second point to me. He gave her what passed for a polite smile and gestured for her to be seated. "The students should be outside now."

"You make them wait on you?" she asked, settling down with her bloody stupid clipboard and writing his name on the top of the sheet of pink parchment. Pink parchment... he suppressed a shudder of distaste. Vile woman. She had worse taste than he did.

"I make them wait in the corridor so that if I am delayed for any reason, they are not tempted to play with anything without supervision. It's a safety measure."

Turning away, he stalked towards the door and immediately heard the raised voices outside. What the hell are you lot doing this time? Sighing, he opened the door and wasn't remotely surprised to see Potter and Weasley struggling and Draco smirking. It was odd to see Longbottom in the middle of it, but he didn't have the time or the inclination to be curious and took ten points from Gryffindor before ordering them inside.

Following the last student in, he closed the door loudly enough to cut off the whispers and walked past the Trio's usual table to the front of the classroom. "You will notice that we have a guest today," he drawled; not for the first time, he was thankful for his voice. Not only was it the only remotely positive feature he possessed, it meant that he could sound contemptuous and sneering without actually having to sneer and could therefore claim innocence if accused of mocking someone.

The students all exchanged glances, and you didn't need to be a Legilimens to spot what they were thinking. His lip curled, and he himself wasn't sure if it was a sneer or a smile; with a teacher like the toad, he was no longer the most hated staff member, which was quite a peculiar feeling. He'd felt a shadow of it with Lockhart, but most of the girls had fancied the prick, which had let him keep some scraps of popularity. Raising his voice fractionally, Severus continued, "We are continuing with our Strengthening Solution today. You will find your mixtures as you left them last lesson; if correctly made they should have matured well over the weekend – instructions –" Drawing his wand, he flicked it at the blackboard "– on the board. Carry on."

The first part of the lesson passed relatively painlessly. It was a horrific thought, but for some reason Umbridge actually seemed to like him, much to Minerva's somewhat malicious joy over the past couple of weeks. Severus knew he partly had Lucius to blame for that. He wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that his so-called friend had been singing his praises deliberately; Malfoy Senior had a very twisted sense of humour at times, which would obviously require appropriate retribution at a later date. Still, he didn't expect it to last; Fudge had seen his Dark Mark last year, after all.

He was examining Thomas' potion when he heard footsteps, and glared into the boy's cauldron irritably; here we go. Her footsteps weren't quite even; he hoped she had pins and needles. Dean Thomas was one of the average Potions students; his potion was correct, but uninspired. There were no real flaws, but it wasn't particularly high quality. He tried to concentrate on the potion as that annoying breathy voice addressed him.

"Well, the class seem fairly advanced for their level," she told him, and he sneered at the cauldron in front of him. They should be, with a ridiculously overqualified teacher. He saw no point in coddling them along with Boil-Cure Potion forever, and this was the OWL class, after all. Umbridge continued, "Though I would question whether it is advisable to teach them a potion like the Strengthening Solution. I think the Ministry would prefer it if that was removed from the syllabus."

It's not the same thing as Strength Potion, you incompetent hag. He straightened up, barely able to stop himself rolling his eyes. If he had to endure inspection, why couldn't it have been performed by someone who actually knew the subject? Strength Potion increased the drinker's physical and magical strength temporarily, but Strengthening Solution didn't. It was harmless enough, used mainly to increase the strength of enchantments laid on objects and sometimes used to boost the efficacy of certain other potions. Turning away from the bench and letting Thomas get on with his work, he regarded her impassively as she picked up her quill from the edge of her clipboard.

"Now... how long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?" she asked.

"Fourteen years." Which was on record, had she bothered to look at the records. Idiot. Toad.

"You applied first for the Defence Against the Dark Arts post, I believe?" she asked in a poisonously sweet voice.

Ah. So that's where this is going. "Yes," he replied quietly.

"But you were unsuccessful?"

Thomas stifled a laugh; clearly, as many students as possible were eavesdropping, and he knew who would be among them. Severus changed tactics and stopped Occluding, curling his lip; might as well go for broke and enjoy himself making her look stupid, even if he paid for it later. "Obviously," he replied witheringly, and heard another stifled laugh somewhere behind him that sounded like it might even have been Granger.

The toad started writing briskly; he glanced down long enough to read her stupidly elaborate loopy handwriting upside down and wasn't surprised to see that she was writing gibberish, just trying to look like she was making lots of notes based on his four-syllable answer.

"And you have applied regularly for the Defence Against the Dark Arts post since you first joined the school, I believe?"

"Yes," he said curtly. This had already stopped being fun. He really did hate being publicly humiliated in any way, even though this was very minor compared to some of the things he had endured. Swallowing bile and trying to keep calm, he waited for the inevitable next question.

"Do you have any idea why Dumbledore has consistently refused to appoint you?" she asked sweetly.

Oh, there were lots of reasons. Partly because the old man wasn't stupid and knew he'd never find another Potions teacher with Severus' qualifications, partly out of spite. A significant part of the reason was that he simply didn't trust Severus not to snap and start teaching the children true Dark magic. But mostly, it was because the job was cursed, and neither of them could afford for Severus to leave after a year. He needed to be here so he could lie to the Dark Lord, and so Dumbledore could keep an eye on him. None of which were acceptable reasons to tell Umbridge.

That didn't stop him from applying, which also had a lot of reasons. So he could show the Dark Lord that he was still trying to obey the initial order he had been given, mainly. It also irritated Dumbledore, which was always worth doing, and gave him an excuse to be nasty to whoever did land the job – most of them deserved it anyway – and it helped people to underestimate him. He also did genuinely like the subject and would quite enjoy teaching it for a little while, even though Potions was his true love, and now that war had come again he knew he could teach the brats more about defending themselves than anyone else Dumbledore managed to coerce into the job. Especially Umbridge.

Trying not to grit his teeth, he replied shortly, "I suggest you ask him."

"Oh, I shall," she told him, and smiled – the sweet, girly expression that he hated on general principles that did unfortunate things to her pouchy, puffy features and made her look even more vile and toad-like.

Trying not to imagine the kind of things he could do to her, he asked grimly, "I suppose this is relevant?" Of course it wasn't relevant. His abilities as a Potions teacher had nothing to do with his wanting a different job.

"Oh yes," she assured him, "yes, the Ministry wants a thorough understanding of teachers' – er – backgrounds."

I'll take you with me next time I'm Summoned, he thought viciously. You'd get a very thorough understanding then. The Ministry had always wanted another go at him ever since Dumbledore's intervention had cleared him of prosecution at his trial; it must be very frustrating to Fudge, knowing that he was a Death Eater and yet not being able to do a damned thing about it. He glared at her back as she walked over to Parkinson and started asking about the lessons; at least he'd pass his stupid inspection, and with flying colours if she was talking to the Slytherins – they knew which side their bread was buttered.

Turning away, he caught Potter's gaze. The boy wasn't even trying to hide his eavesdropping, and his temper snapped as he stalked over to stare at the absolute mess in the cauldron. Clearly, Potter had been so busy watching his enemies fencing that he hadn't even tried to pay attention to his work. As Potter looked down, Severus glanced briefly at Granger, who had turned slightly to put her back to them and was obviously making it clear that she had given up trying to help him rescue the mess. She was probably still trying to help Longbottom, but he couldn't bring himself to care at the moment; he didn't want to deal with another melted cauldron today anyway.

"No marks again, then, Potter," he told the boy spitefully. On this occasion, it was justified; the brat's potion was genuinely the worst in the class, as he Vanished the congealing sludge from the cauldron. "You will write me an essay on the correct composition of this potion, indicating how and why you went wrong, to be handed in next lesson, do you understand?"

"Yes," the boy hissed resentfully. Idiot. This potion is on your OWL. You haven't learned how to make it in class so you'll have to do it on your own time. I'm not just being a bastard or I'd simply have given you to Filch to play with for an evening; it's not as if I want any more marking to do.

Rolling his eyes, he stalked off to see how badly Crabbe and Goyle had managed to mess up this time, gritting his teeth and stopping himself from glaring at Umbridge's back. Infuriatingly, she had won this round.

By the time he stormed into the almost deserted staff room that evening, he was still in a bad mood. Minerva looked up as he thumped into a chair opposite her and smiled slightly. "Well, someone's obviously just had their first inspection at last," she told him, sounding unnecessarily cheerful in his opinion. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

"No," he replied shortly as she reached down beside her chair and produced her chessboard, raising an eyebrow at him inquiringly. He nodded and she started to set up the pieces. "Of course it had to be the fifth years. Is she stalking Potter or something?"

"Probably," she agreed. "Most of the reason she's here at all is to watch him, after all. Did you get to play with her?"

"Disappointingly, no," he told her. "She got in a few jabs about Defence and then spent the rest of the lesson interviewing the students."

"Bad luck," she told him sympathetically, "but you'll have at least one other chance. I'm expecting something good, Severus; you and I have a duty to make her squirm at every opportunity." She nudged her first pawn forward and they settled to the game.

"Where is everyone?" he asked a few minutes later.

"Aurora, Charity and Rolanda have gone to the Three Broomsticks, Filius and Bathsheda are on patrol this evening, Pomona's in her greenhouse as usual, Septima is in her office working, and she is with Albus. Hopefully being told off."

"Why, what's she done now?" he asked, smirking a little as he took Minerva's bishop.

Giving him an irritated look and taking one of his pawns in revenge, she replied quietly, "Sybill's been put on probation."

"Well, that's hardly a surprise," he noted. He was one of only a small handful of people who knew that Sybill Trelawney was a genuine Seer, but that didn't stop her being a hopeless old fraud the rest of the time. "Maybe this means we can finally scrap the whole damned subject. I hope you've told the house-elves to hide the cooking sherry."

"You're in no position to comment on anyone else's drinking habits, Severus," she scolded him, hastily rescuing one of her knights. "She hasn't taken it well. She was crying earlier. Please be nice to her."

He moved his queen. "I never speak to her. For me, that is nice."

"True, I suppose. And technically, the Ministry's decree allows her to inspect us and put us on probation, but I don't recall it stating that she can fire us..."

"It doesn't say that she can't, either," he pointed out gloomily. "We'll have no help there. They've got too many people on the alert for loopholes. Check."

Moving her king out of danger, she nodded. "Albus was prepared for this, anyway. You'll enjoy his plan if Sybill does end up getting the sack."

"You do enjoy being cryptic, don't you," he commented mildly, sacrificing a knight and studying the board through half-closed eyes.

"Pot, kettle, black, Severus," she chided him. "My point is, we can limit her damage among the staff, but the students are getting out of hand already."

"That's what they do," he pointed out. "Check, again."

Looking annoyed, she rescued her king again, and he smirked at her. She sighed. "Disbanding student groups and clubs this morning was a very bad idea, especially with the Quidditch season about to start. Potter's not our only young rebel. She's been carping about at least one student in every single class..."

"Mostly Gryffindors," he told her slyly.

"Because your Slytherins are being disgusting little lickspittles," she pointed out, taking another pawn.

"Disgusting little lickspittles who are well ahead on House points," he replied calmly. He didn't like his students' attitudes either, but the House of the Snake was full of survivors. They weren't getting detention constantly. He took Minerva's second bishop and she retaliated by taking one of his castles.

"It's only a matter of time before something serious happens, Severus. I'm worried about Potter."

"My money's on the Weasley twins, actually." He moved his remaining knight out of danger. "Have you seen their little sweets in action yet? I'm looking forward to those being rolled out." Not for the first time, he wondered in some amusement how the students would react if they found out how much their teachers gossiped and how few secrets they really had.

"You won't have any Potions students left. I'm sure you don't have a problem with that, but it will affect your salary." She took another pawn.

He snorted. "Hardly. They hate her far more than they hate me. I may treat them all like idiots, but I don't patronise them and pretend that I'm not, and I'm not preventing them from learning or lying to them."

"Jokes aside, Severus, this is getting serious. You and I both know that the staff only have the illusion of control at best. If she pushes them to open rebellion..."

Moving his queen clear across the board, Severus smirked a little. The Trio's attempt to start their little defence club was already public knowledge now, even if they thought they had been so stealthy about it; he was quite proud of his role in that. "With fellow rebels around him, Potter will be less of a problem than if he were the only one; he's relatively calm at the moment, because he thinks he's being clever. I still say your twins will act first."

Watching the board through narrowed eyes, she nodded. "Care to wager?"

"Ten Galleons," he said without hesitation.

Minerva blinked at him, then nodded with fierce pride and took another pawn. "You're on." They shook on it and returned to the game. "I'm still worried about the boy..."

"You've said that twice now. He'll be fine; he always is."

"She intercepted his owl the other day."


They exchanged grim looks. "There wasn't anything risky in whatever letter he was sending; he at least has that much sense. But she's getting braver. We're barely into October; what will she work her way up to by Christmas?"

"We'll have to see that her courage takes a battering, then, won't we," he murmured. "Check."

"Damn," she muttered before she could stop herself, moving her king hastily and glaring at him. "Albus has already told you not to poison her."

"I'm not going to. At least not yet." He let her take his second castle. "If you're that bothered about the students, let's get her focusing her attention elsewhere for a while. The best strategy with the Ministry is always to play on their paranoia. Get her preoccupied about herself and her possessions and she'll stop paying so much attention to the rest of the castle."

"It's at times like these that I'm glad you're no longer a student, Severus. You would be a complete nightmare."

"You say the sweetest things," he told her sarcastically, smirking again.

"How much time are you going to have to spare to help out?"

"As much as I need," he assured her. "She's unpopular with both sides, you know. She's trying to destroy Hogwarts, and nobody wants that. Who else wants to be involved?"

"Filius, obviously. Perhaps Pomona, although there isn't much she can do at the moment. I'm sure everyone else will help as needed."

Severus smiled as an idea occurred to him, sacrificing another pawn. "Let's make it interesting, shall we?"

"Go on. You're in check, by the way."

Unsurprised, he moved his king. "Start a pool. Everyone contributes a little every week. At the end of the year, we take a vote on who managed to hinder her the most; winner takes all."

They exchanged happily malicious looks. "I'm in," Minerva agreed. "There will have to be conditions, of course. No unfair advantages, and nothing dangerous, and no getting the students involved."

"Sounds fair. And we don't tell Dumbledore."

"What he doesn't have proof of, he can't do anything about," she agreed; neither of them were daft enough to think that he wouldn't know what they were up to.

"Splendid. Checkmate."

She looked at the board and sighed as her king surrendered with a disgusted expression. "I almost had you that time. You've got almost no pieces left."

"I'm not a better chess player than you are. I'm just better at reading you than you are at reading me."

"The queen was a feint?"


"Hmph. All right, then, I'll speak to the others as and when I can. You and I are on patrol together next Thursday, I believe; we'll see what happens between now and then."

It seemed to take forever before the twins and their audience left the common room. Hermione had given up trying to argue now; Ron and Harry were too impressed to listen, and she didn't want to admit that part of her was grudgingly impressed as well. Under different circumstances she would have been more horrified by sweets that let students get out of classes, but... well, Umbridge was a special case. If she didn't so desperately want to keep track of what the foul woman was doing and to try and keep Harry under control, she might be tempted to skip Defence lessons too.

Finally the common room was blessedly silent and empty. Hermione was somewhat dismayed to see that it was gone midnight already; it was all right for the boys, they weren't going to be up at half past five, trying to adjust to an early routine before she could put her plan into action after Hagrid returned. At least Snape hadn't been Summoned tonight, so she wasn't going to be called to the hospital wing, but she was still going to be exhausted tomorrow.

"Sirius," Ron said at last, waking up, and she put her homework to one side as her friend's godfather grinned at them from the fireplace.


"Hi," she replied with the others, kneeling on the rug beside Crookshanks.

"How're things?"

"Not that good," Harry said, as she hastily pulled her cat away from the fire. "The Ministry's forced through another decree, which means we're not allowed to have Quidditch teams –"

"Or secret Defence Against the Dark Arts groups?" Sirius asked archly, and they all stared at him. Hermione had no idea what the boys were feeling, but she mostly felt embarrassed; they'd been so careful!

"How did you know about that?" Harry demanded.

"You want to choose your meeting places more carefully," Sirius replied, grinning. "The Hog's Head, I ask you."

He sounded so mocking that Hermione bristled. "Well, it was better than the Three Broomsticks," she protested. "That's always packed with people –"

"Which means you'd have been harder to overhear," Sirius said dismissively. "You've got a lot to learn, Hermione," he added.

He probably hadn't meant it to sound so patronising, but it still annoyed her, mostly because she knew it was true. The things she didn't know kept her awake and worrying at night, after all. She had tried to keep their group private, but obviously she'd made a bit of a mess of it; she was no Slytherin, she already knew that. No wonder Professor Snape had seemed amused about something over the past few days... after all, it had been partly something he'd said that had inspired her to suggest this in the first place.

Thinking of Snape drew her eyes back to Sirius as he talked about Mundungus Fletcher, and a sudden cold weight settled in her stomach as she remembered that this man cheerfully grinning and talking about rebellion had been capable of attempted murder when he was their age, and had been a bully long before that. It was a strange feeling... she liked Sirius, and certainly Snape had always given back as good as he'd received when she'd seen them interacting, but the facts were undeniable. A prank would have been to send Snape under the tree on any other night, and maybe close the passage behind him or have something waiting for him. Making sure it happened on the full moon, with a werewolf at the other end, was no mere joke. Sirius had wanted Snape dead.

And while Snape could easily hold his own against Sirius now they were grown – verbally, at least, and she'd bet on him in a duel as well, although maybe not in a physical fight – she doubted that had been true when they were boys. Apart from anything else, it had never been one on one, as far as she knew. One against four was a very long way from a fair fight; it was bullying, plain and simple, and with the best will in the world she couldn't come up with any justification. Snape wasn't stupid and never had been, and he would never have started such an unbalanced fight that he couldn't possibly hope to win.

Hermione felt a little sad, realising again that she was growing up and finding that the world wasn't the place she had thought it was. She had always liked Sirius, always been on his side, but now she found herself remembering the savage and almost unbalanced rage Snape had shown two years ago in a different light. You didn't get that kind of anger without a hell of a lot of pain to fuel it. It was harder to choose sides once you knew the full story, especially since she knew what it felt like to be picked on. So did Harry, come to that, but he was still blind to everything about Snape except his nastiness, the way she had been until recently.

Pushing her troubled thoughts away for the moment, Hermione listened as Sirius explained the warning from Mrs Weasley, a little embarrassed to find that it sounded very much like the bossy twelve year old she used to be. That was one positive about growing up, she supposed; her own priorities had shifted. The boys could joke about it as much as they liked; Ron might be a blood traitor but he was still a pureblood, and Harry had the whole Order to protect him, but Hermione was a Mudblood and a target, and she wanted to be able to protect herself, because not many people were going to be doing it for her.

"So you want me to say I'm not going to take part in the Defence group?" Ron said sullenly.

"Me? Certainly not!" Sirius replied, looking surprisingly shocked at the notion. "I think it's an excellent idea!"

Frowning at his tone, Hermione looked back at the fire thoughtfully as Harry said happily, "You do?"

"Of course I do! D'you think your father and I would've lain down and taken orders from an old hag like Umbridge?"

No, Hermione thought darkly. You'd have been like Harry, defiant and angry and... stupid, and you'd have ended up in endless detentions as well. For a moment her inner monologue spoke in Snape's voice, about arrogant overemotional impulsive reckless Gryffindors.

Harry seemed to have picked up on something in his godfather's voice too, as he gave the fire a puzzled look. "But – last term all you did was tell me to be careful and not take risks –"

"Last year, all the evidence was that someone inside Hogwarts was trying to kill you, Harry!" Sirius said impatiently. "This year, we know there's someone outside Hogwarts who'd like to kill us all, so I think learning to defend yourselves properly is a very good idea!"

You've always been good at justifying things, Hermione's inner Snape said darkly. Wanting to feel ashamed of her suspicions, Hermione asked quietly, "And if we do get expelled?" Sirius wasn't a thrill-seeking teenage rebel any more. He was Harry's guardian, and an adult in a position of responsibility.

"Hermione, this whole thing was your idea!" Harry protested.

It was Professor Snape's idea, actually. And she still didn't know if that throwaway comment had been pure chance or if he'd meant to send her mind off at the tangent that had led to this, if it had been coincidence or deliberate manipulation. "I know it was," she replied with a shrug. "I just wondered what Sirius thought." She knew what he thought; she wanted to know what he would say.

"Well, better expelled and able to defend yourselves than sitting safely in school without a clue," Sirius replied now, and his casual tone answered her question. Her heart sank as Harry and Ron chorused eager agreement before the three of them began to discuss possible meeting places, and she wondered uneasily how long she could let things be before she had to tell Harry her suspicions.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 5 of 60

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