Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 6 of 60

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Hermione hadn't slept well that night; hardly surprising, given how close they had come to being caught by Umbridge. In hindsight, it had been a stupid thing to do, which was only adding to her nagging and confused thoughts about her friend's godfather; what they were doing was dangerous, and he should be encouraging them to be careful, helping them to think things through properly, not simply blindly egging them on. She didn't much like thinking like this, part of her still wanting to be the little girl who had complete faith in the adults around her to do what was best. Growing up wasn't much fun, really.

Seeing Snape at breakfast that morning didn't help; she'd been trying to forget the reminder of what Sirius had done for half the night. Every time she glanced up at him she felt almost guilty, which made no sense; she hadn't been part of any bullying, and while admittedly she had assaulted him a couple of times, it had been completely justified at the time and never meant maliciously. She'd never even called him any of the nasty names that the rest of the school gave him – occasionally thinking of him as a bastard didn't count, since he was one – and she'd even tried not to laugh at the Boggart incident. So why was she feeling guilty about things that had happened long before she was born?

Maybe because the people who were involved don't feel guilty, she realised slowly; thinking of the Boggart incident had reminded her that she'd felt a bit uncomfortable about it at the time. It wasn't exactly professional to encourage a class to laugh at another teacher, and it had seemed unlike Professor Lupin to do so. The whole school had been mocking Snape for that; Hermione was ashamed to realise now that this was the first time she'd paused to wonder how he must have felt about it. She'd always felt it was wrong to disrespect a teacher, but she'd never stopped to think that maybe it might have hurt his feelings.

And certainly Sirius had never seemed to care. She glanced along the staff table at her Potions teacher again, remembering how Harry and Ron had laughed over learning the nickname Snivellus; she knew about bullies and she knew there was no pain in the world that was quite like a childhood nickname meant maliciously. Clearly the surviving Marauders felt no guilt about their actions, always shrugging off any mention of their feud, and Dumbledore too had told Snape to get over it, as though he wasn't allowed to be angry – in fact, now that she thought of it, Dumbledore had joined in the joke over the Boggart; Harry and Ron had told her about the hat in the Christmas cracker. That was hardly fair either.

Her whole view of the world was being turned upside down. She'd only known Snape's true role for a couple of months; it was barely October, and yet suddenly she was seeing everything differently, just because she had suddenly realised that her Potions master was a human being and that things weren't what they seemed. It was a strangely lonely feeling, because she knew that her friends were still young enough not to see it.

Talking about how far Umbridge was willing to go in Charms later, she had intended to raise the subject, but her courage had failed her. Annoyed with her own weakness, she made up her mind to discuss it over break, and gathered her thoughts as best she could while the boys were celebrating the Quidditch team being reformed – they really were young still, she realised with a slightly sad smile. As if Quidditch was important when the world was going to hell.

"What's up with you, Hermione?" Ron asked, rousing her from her thoughts as she watched the rain running down the window.

"Just thinking..."

"About Siri – Snuffles?" Harry asked, and she steeled herself.

"No... not exactly... More... wondering... I suppose we're doing the right thing... I think... aren't we?" God, it was all so confusing. Inspiration or not, this had been her idea, and it made her feel responsible if something went wrong and they got caught. In an ideal world she would be able to talk it over with an adult, but the only realistic option was Snape himself, and he confused her and she was still rather intimidated by him and she was sure that he disliked her, as she sort of still disliked him after a fashion; she certainly couldn't see herself sitting down with him for a chat. Besides, she doubted he would be able to speak impartially about Sirius or Harry.

"Well, that clears that up," Ron said sarcastically. "It would've been really annoying if you hadn't explained yourself properly."

Oh ha bloody ha, Ron. "I was just wondering whether we're doing the right thing, starting this Defence Against the Dark Arts group," she said finally, realising as she did so that she shouldn't have said it aloud even if nobody seemed to be listening.

"What? Hermione, it was your idea in the first place!"

"I know," she replied awkwardly. She hated this feeling, hated having to be the voice of reason when she knew it would make her friends angry with her, hated having to start a fight. It hurt. "But after talking to Snuffles..."

"But he's all for it," Harry said blankly.

"Yes," she agreed, staring at the window once more. "Yes, that's what made me think maybe it wasn't a good idea after all."

She nearly flinched at the anger in Harry's voice when he replied, wondering dully how long they would refuse to speak to her this time. "Let's get this straight. Sirius agrees with us, so you don't think we should do it any more?"

She knew he was hurt; his godfather was family, more so than his dreadful aunt and uncle, and Harry loved Sirius with all the desperation of someone who'd never had anyone to love before, but that was what made him unable to see clearly. "Do you honestly trust his judgement?" she asked quietly. Quite apart from anything else, Sirius had spent a dozen years in Azkaban. Animagus or not, it was doubtful that he could have come out of there with his sanity intact, and she wasn't about to put much trust in the way he saw the world.

"Yes, I do!" he snapped instantly. "He's always given us great advice!"

Telling you to be careful after someone tried to set you up doesn't count, Harry. That was only once. Her throat hurt; she knew that what she was going to say would upset him, and Ron would take his side, and the ensuing row was going to be painful. Why did she always have to be the one to crush their sunny optimism? "You don't think he has become... sort of... reckless... since he's been cooped up in Grimmauld Place?" she asked carefully. "You don't think he's kind of... living through us?"

"What d'you mean, 'living through us'?" Harry demanded.

"I mean... well, I think he'd love to be forming secret Defence societies right under the nose of someone from the Ministry... I think he's really frustrated at how little he can do where he is..." Which was understandable. Dumbledore hadn't handled it very well, and she had to admit that Snape's taunting hadn't helped. Even so, Sirius had responsibilities. "So I think he's keen to kind of... egg us on."

They both looked at her blankly. "Sirius is right," Ron said finally, "you do sound like my mother."

Well, someone has to. Biting her lip, she looked away and gave up. They didn't get it, and she really didn't want to make them angry with her again. It was all right for them; they had one another, and if they fell out they had her, and other friends. Hermione didn't. There were people she got on with, sort of, but Harry and Ron were her only close friends, and when they weren't speaking to her she had nobody. Gryffindor courage was all very well, but the world was getting darker and she didn't want to face it by herself even for just a few days.

Severus stared dully at his reflection, steeling himself before leaving his peaceful dungeon to go to dinner. He really, really hated Halloween; the pain hadn't grown any easier with time, and he doubted it ever would. Regardless of any of his feelings, his life had ended on October 31st 1981; he'd really had nothing to live for ever since. He'd lost the only person left in his life that he'd given a damn about, he'd lost the first person to have made him believe that he was worth something – the Dark Lord was a monster, but he'd known the lies that a young Slytherin with nothing needed to hear – and he'd lost his only real purpose. Since then, he'd just been existing in a vacuum, waiting for his master to return.

He didn't like thinking about that Halloween night. He didn't really remember much now, it was all just a haze of pain, but he remembered enough to give him terrible dreams if his Occlumency faltered while he slept, not that sleep was easy to come by any more. It had been worse since Potter had come to Hogwarts – unsurprisingly; the boy made everything worse just by existing. Sometimes he wondered if the boy had nightmares too, but not for long.

Halloween was a big night, though. Most witches and wizards liked going out to play, on the one night of the year when they could get away with being seen. And the Death Eaters all wanted to prove that their master wasn't dead; so did the Dark Lord himself. He had warned Dumbledore that he was going to be Summoned tonight and that it was going to be important; there was to be an Order meeting afterwards that he was commanded to attend, although he had no idea what time he'd be able to get there or what state he'd be in. He wasn't stupid enough to eat or drink anything, at least.

It seemed like forever until his arm finally burned, but it was barely nine. Silently he slipped out of the dungeons and away through the grounds, fixing his masks both physical and metaphorical before pushing his fingers under his sleeve to find the burning brand and answering his master's call. The meeting was outside tonight, he noticed, in the middle of a forest somewhere; that was unusual. Bowing to the tall figure in the centre of the clearing, he found his place in the circle and knelt, his dark eyes moving behind his mask to note whether anyone was absent.

The Dark Lord was in speech mode tonight, it seemed; the last shadowy figure had barely gone to their knees before he began speaking. Severus listened almost in shame; his master was a gifted orator and once these words had stirred him and inspired him, made him want to be a part of this. He hated to remember that, but it was true, and he forced himself to acknowledge it in every meeting; once, he had wanted this. Once, he had been truly a Death Eater, and even for Lily, he had found it painful to betray his master, even though he had known that what he was being made to do was wrong. And when the Dark Lord had returned last year, he remembered the horror and the almost pain he had felt on seeing the twisted ruin that his master had become.

From that opening speech, their master moved on to talking of future plans; in particular, he announced, he intended to bring their numbers back to full strength once more. Severus started paying more attention then, as he spoke of those loyal followers who had gone to Azkaban rather than renounce their faith. Azkaban too haunted his dreams if he couldn't block his nightmares out; he couldn't imagine that any of the Death Eaters still there would be in any fit state to do much for the cause.

Evidently the Dark Lord disagreed; at some point he planned to break them out. It wouldn't even be difficult, he said contemptuously; there were very few actual guards on the island, only the Dementors, who were no threat to him. He probably wouldn't make a move in that direction until the New Year, but soon their ranks would be full once more.

Everyone sounded pleased about that, but Severus knew they weren't. Nobody wanted more rivals for their master's favour, and plenty of people here wouldn't be happy to see some of those who would be released. He was pretty sure he'd heard Lucius curse softly; he sympathised entirely. Bellatrix Lestrange was Lucius' sister in law, but they didn't exactly get along and she had frankly been crazy before she went to prison. Severus still remembered her laughing as she played, and had to suppress a shudder.

Following the talk of strategy – such as it was – the Dark Lord usually let his followers have some fun. That was one good point about his trying to keep his return secret, Severus considered; there were no raids this time, no gruesomely flamboyant murders. So far, the only deaths had been to gain information, or occasionally a single nameless Muggle would be brought in either to test someone's commitment or as a reward. He knew that wouldn't last, but the longer he could go without adding to the blood on his hands, the happier he would be. It was only about a month since he'd last had to kill someone to prove himself, and he hadn't forgotten the way Granger had stared at him. The look in her eyes... seeing that never got easier, no matter who it was.

There were no captives tonight, at least. Instead, the Dark Lord demanded progress reports; resignedly, Severus started to prepare himself, knowing that his turn wasn't going to end well. His master dealt with the lesser followers from the outer circle first, and then those in the centre who were working on gaining access to the Ministry – Severus wished them luck, frankly, since they were going to need it. He himself had no idea why the prophecy apparently hadn't worked or what the other half of it said, but Dumbledore certainly had no intention of letting anyone find out in a hurry.

Finally, it was his turn. "Severus."

"My lord." Rising, he came forward and bowed; once he had needed to crawl to his master's feet, but he stood high enough now to be allowed to stand, for all the good that would do him.

"What do you have to report?"

"The Ministry continue to make things difficult, my lord. I am being watched as closely as the other teachers, but Dumbledore's hold is growing less secure by the day. Umbridge has overridden much of his authority."

"This is good news, but it is not what concerns me at the moment. Hogwarts is a future goal, not an immediate one. What of the Order, Severus? What do they plan?"

He winced inwardly, steeling himself. "My lord, the situation is the same as before. They are scrabbling to maintain their position, trying not to be discredited, trying to recruit others to their cause. They continue to guard the Department of Mysteries against us and continue to send envoys to other races, but I cannot find so much as a hint of any overt move against you."

Most people might have taken that as good news, he told himself sourly. The Death Eaters had the advantage at the moment, if his master could stop fretting about whatever tripe Trelawney had spouted and made an effort to do something. Of course, Severus was opposed to that and didn't want these people to win, but part of him was frustrated to see the wasted opportunity.

Those red eyes stared at him. "Severus, remove your mask."

He did so, knowing what was coming.

"On your knees."

Focusing on his breathing, Severus knelt, concentrating on his shields.

"Look at me. Legilimens!"

Pressure building behind his eyes, and then a spike of pain as his master accessed his mind, the mental touch brisk and impersonal and casually violent as the Dark Lord rifled carelessly through his memories, indifferent to whether it cost his spy anything.

"You have nothing new to offer me, Severus," he said dangerously when they were done.

He bowed his head. "I can only apologise, my lord. I do my best to serve you, you know that."

"Yet your best, of late, has been rather poor..."

"As you say, my lord." He hated himself for talking like this and being so sycophantic, but mostly because once he had genuinely meant it.

"Look at me." He did so, forcing himself to meet the inhuman red eyes, focusing on his breathing and his heartbeat and trying to relax his muscles in preparation for what was about to happen.


A few people had asked him about the Cruciatus, over the years. Poppy, once, when she was trying to work out what, if anything, she could do to help the young man who'd crawled whimpering into the infirmary and collapsed. Dumbledore had once, and he'd refused to answer on general principles. Minerva had asked, too, after someone's birthday party when she'd drunk too much and been in a maudlin mood. He hadn't answered any of them, partly because he didn't want to talk about it but mostly because he didn't have the words to describe it.

It felt like molten ice, or freezing fire, an utterly unique sensation flowing along his veins. It started in his chest and radiated outwards through his nerves, and his sense of time always left him so he could track the agonisingly slow progress to his extremities even though it took only a fraction of a second. Then it reached his head, and all the pain receptors in his brain leaped to life, and the world ceased to exist; there was only fire and ice, a sensation so acute and overwhelming that it wasn't even pain but something else entirely, as his vision faded into darkness.

Severus was always frightened, during the Cruciatus. Sometimes it felt almost as though he had died; if he did die while being cursed, he would never know until he woke up in whatever hell would pass for his afterlife. That scared him, the idea that he could die without knowing that it had happened. The pain took him out of his senses, almost out of his body, or so it felt; in reality, he knew, he'd gone deep, buried himself behind all the defences of his mind and abandoned his flesh to the agony.

Aside from the pain, other physical sensations were distant shadows that he had to really concentrate to be aware of. Sometimes the curse made him scream, although not very often – he didn't really react to pain like that any more – and when it did, his throat became raw as his larynx became overstrained. If he had existing injuries, the agony made them worse; his liver was probably being further damaged at the moment. Sometimes he hurt himself when he writhed; no matter his pain threshold, the muscle spasms caused by the Cruciatus were beyond his control. But they were outside now, on damp earth, so he wouldn't bruise himself or hit anything this time. Occasionally the pain was intense enough for his body to fail him, and even Occlumency couldn't stop him from pissing himself, but he had to be under the curse for a long time to reach that point.

Time was impossible to measure. Poppy had tried to measure severity by asking how many times he'd been cursed or how long the curse had lasted, before they'd devised the somewhat arbitrary numbers scale to determine pain, and he'd never been able to answer her. There was no time in the strange place created when the agony of the Unforgiveable fractured his consciousness like this; it could have been a few seconds or a few hours before the flames died and left only ice behind.

The quality of the darkness changed to the familiar sight of the inside of his own eyelids, and he heard his blood pounding in his ears and his rather erratic heartbeat. His brain took control once more, and Severus perceived that he was lying on his right side, as he listened to himself panting; he was soaked in sweat and shaking as the cold slowly receded and left far more ordinary pain behind. There was blood in his mouth, which wasn't unusual; he usually bit his lip or his tongue at some point. Ignoring it, he picked himself up, disregarding the pain completely as he hauled himself stiffly back onto his knees and opened his eyes to stare fixedly at the ground; getting up before he had permission would be suicide, but staying in a state of collapse was a declaration of weakness that would be just as fatal in the long run.

"You know the price of failure, Severus."

His master's voice seemed to be coming from a distance, and echoed strangely, almost as though he was hearing it under water. That too was normal, if this could ever be called normal. His own voice sounded as emotionless as ever, although with a pained rasp to the usual silky tones, as he replied quietly, "Yes, my lord."

"Do not fail me again."

"No, my lord," he replied obediently; he didn't mean a word of it. He would fail both his masters many more times before this was over. The Dark Lord punished him physically, Dumbledore emotionally; he still wasn't sure which one hurt more.

"Return to your place."

Severus stood up slowly, ignoring the way the world spun around him as his vision darkened at the edges and the blood drained from his head fast enough to leave him dizzy. He knew from experience that he wouldn't actually faint even though it felt like he was about to. Replacing his mask, he walked slowly back to his place in the circle and knelt once more, running his tongue around his mouth to locate the bitten place and swallowing blood. It hadn't been that bad, this time; he'd hurt for the rest of the night and be aching and shaky tomorrow, but it was nothing he couldn't deal with, nothing he hadn't dealt with many times before.

Hagrid's return at the start of November did nothing to improve Severus' mood. The envoy to the giants had failed, which was no surprise to anyone; furthermore, the half-giant's presence in Hogwarts again was only going to fuel Umbridge's campaign and make her more determined to destroy as much of the remaining stability as possible.

Yet, surprisingly, her first move wasn't against the Care of Magical Creatures teacher, or against any of the staff; Severus was quietly minding his own business marking third-year essays when Minerva stormed into his office and slammed the door behind her, giving him a venomous glare. "I hope you're pleased, Snape," she spat at him.

Somewhat taken aback by the unusual degree of anger, Severus looked at her blankly, frowning slightly. "It's hardly my fault that the children started fighting after their Quidditch match," he pointed out. "They frequently do; it's a tradition by now. What's got you so riled up?"

"She's banned them," his colleague snarled.

He raised an eyebrow. "Banned whom?"

"Potter and the twins! I've lost half my team!"

Very unwisely, Severus snorted a laugh. That had been a mistake; you never taunted Minerva about Quidditch, not if you valued your skin, but he really couldn't help it. It had been wonderfully nasty of the toad – Potter would have let her actually amputate his hand before giving up his beloved sport, and without their Seeker or their Beaters, Gryffindor would almost certainly finish last in the Cup this year.

Minerva looked on the verge of slapping him, her eyes blazing fury. "It's not funny, Severus! Malfoy provoked them into it deliberately, and you know it!"

"Of course he did. He always does, and they always fall for it," he drawled in response. "They should have grown a thicker skin by now. That song wasn't even that clever, and I've heard far worse Quidditch chants over the years."

"That wasn't what started it. No son of Molly Weasley or Lily Potter would stand and let anyone insult them like that," she replied grimly, and he froze for an instant in understanding. Yes, that would do it. Nobody tolerated insults to their mother – Severus had never really liked his mother and was the first to disparage a lot about her, but he wouldn't have let anyone else say it – and Draco should be very fortunate that his Head of House hadn't been on hand to overhear him insulting Lily, as he had been fortunate in past years not to have been overheard using the word Mudblood.

"Be that as it may," he replied after a moment, once he was sure he was calm once more. "Go to Dumbledore and get it overturned. It's not the end of the world."

"I can't," she said helplessly, not sounding quite so angry any more. "Another damned Educational Decree."

"Oh, joy. What are we up to now, twenty four?"

"Twenty five. This one gives her the power to overrule us on any disciplinary issue. She can do anything to the students and we don't have the power to stop her."

"Bugger," Severus said after a moment, although truthfully he wasn't that surprised. It wasn't even going to make that much difference; she had already been doing pretty much anything she pleased. He wasn't sure any of the other staff members knew the truth about her 'detentions' yet; if he had taught anything other than Potions, he wouldn't have noticed either, but he did spend a fair amount of time watching his students' hands and he knew enough about Dark magic to recognise a Blood Quill scar when he saw one. It was always faintly possible that the boy was practising a particularly theatrical form of self harm, of course, but even Potter wasn't that daft.

"She's getting too powerful, Severus. I don't know how we're going to stop her."

"Between us, we'll think of something," he replied darkly, his mind already working. He'd had just about enough of the toad's interference for a while; time to give her something else to occupy her mind...

To that end, he arrived late to the next staff meeting. It was traditional for the last person to arrive to make the drinks for everyone else, and he usually tried to get there early for just that reason, but not this time. Settling down – at least nobody had tried to claim his usual corner chair before he got there – he sipped his coffee and watched the snow out of the window, listening with half an ear to the discussion and counting silently.

Right on cue exactly seven minutes later, the toad's pouchy face lost most of its colour, and it took everything he had to keep his face impassive as he watched her shifting and fidgeting in her chair. Four and a half minutes after that, she almost spilled her tea with an audible gasp that cut Filius off mid-sentence and drew all eyes to her.

"Is something amiss, Dolores?" Dumbledore asked, sounding genuinely concerned; she was paler than ever and starting to sweat, Severus noted gleefully.

"I... I..." she stammered, gulping air and looking more like a toad than ever, putting her cup down shakily and spilling half of it into the saucer. "Forgive me, Headmaster, I – feel a little... unwell... Perhaps I might be excused?"

"Of course. I do hope it's nothing too serious?"

"I do," Minerva muttered under her breath, and Severus' lips twitched before he regained control of his expression, keeping his features still until the door shut – Umbridge had been almost running, and he was trying very hard not to laugh.

"I do hope she's all right," Dumbledore murmured, watching the door for a moment. "Do you suppose it was something she ate?"

"Possibly," Severus agreed dryly, making no attempt to hide his smirk now as he leaned forward and Vanished the contents of her teacup.

"You – Severus, what have you done?"

"Me, Headmaster?" he asked innocently. Behind the old man, he saw Minerva starting to smile as understanding dawned, and nearly lost his composure completely.

"Don't play games, Severus. Did you poison her?"

He snorted. "Don't be insulting. If I'd poisoned her, she'd be dead. This will do her good."

Dumbledore pinched the bridge of his nose. "What did you give her?"

"Nothing fatal. She will, unfortunately, be fine come Monday morning, although she may feel a little... drained. We do, however, have a pleasantly quiet weekend ahead of us now."

Several of his colleagues were sniggering now, and his smirk broadened; the pot of Galleons was going to be quite large by the end of the year, and he intended to claim it. The way things were going right now, he'd probably need it.

The Headmaster looked furious. "Why did you do this?"

"Because," he replied nonchalantly, starting to theatrically count the reasons on his fingers. "Because she deserves it. Because she irritates me. Because I don't want to see her for a few days. Because thanks to the Ministry it's about all I can do to her. And because it was funny."

"This is no game, Severus. The Ministry –"

"Oh, give it a rest," he told his employer. "I'm not actually an idiot and I know what the stakes are. She's not going to die; it's just a stomach upset. It might even do her some good, and at least she can't do any damage for a day or two." His lip curled. "Which is more than you've achieved."

The old man at least had the decency to look away.

Hermione had slogged through the snow early on Sunday morning to get to Hagrid's, but he wasn't in a co-operative mood and clearly didn't believe her when she tried to explain about Umbridge. She tried to stress the need for lessons that wouldn't get him into trouble, but her friend clearly wasn't listening, and after a while she reluctantly gave up and returned to her other reason for visiting him.

"One more question, Hagrid, before I go?" She gave him her most innocent smile; it wouldn't have fooled her mother for a second, and probably not Snape either, but everyone else tended to believe it because they didn't expect her to be feigning innocence. Which could be very useful at times, although she did feel a bit guilty about it. "I was wondering if there's anywhere safe to go running around here..."

After she had convinced Hagrid that no, the centre of the Forbidden Forest wasn't really what she had in mind (if that was where Snape went jogging, he was on his own) he showed her a track that ran a little way along the lake and looped back through the very edges of the tree line. Studying it briefly, Hermione noted that the snow had been trampled down and was marked with recent footprints that looked like trainers, and a glance towards the castle confirmed that most if not all of the route would be hidden from view even now when the leaves were gone from the trees. Perfect. The circuit was a couple of miles; she was glad now that she had been practising and building up her stamina, because while it would still be quite a bit of effort it probably wouldn't kill her.

"And nothing's going to attack me?" she asked, just to make sure. The squid would leave her alone if she stayed on the path, and she was pretty sure the very edge of the Forest was safe enough, but Hogwarts wasn't an environment for people who took their surroundings for granted.

"Nah, there's nothin' dangerous 'round here," he assured her cheerfully. Not even Potions masters? She didn't dare voice the thought, biting her lower lip for a moment as Hagrid continued, "Good ter see one of you lot takin' a bit of exercise."

That was certainly true; unless you were on the Quidditch team, the only exercise most of the students got was trotting around the castle to get to lessons. Given the average student diet, Hermione had always been quite surprised that half the school weren't built like Crabbe and Goyle. She had already noticed that since she had started jogging even small distances, she was sleeping better and felt more energetic.

"Do you think I'll be able to convince Harry and Ron to join me?" she asked Hagrid innocently now, and joined in with the hearty laugh that said just how likely that was. Nobody else was going to be remotely interested in joining in – which was precisely the point.

She completed her first circuit of the trail during the lunch hour the next day. It wasn't as bad as she had feared; it was further than she usually ran, but the ground was level and the snow wasn't too treacherous. Now that she was fairly sure she wouldn't embarrass herself, it was time to finally put her plan into action before the weather got too bad, and she made sure to get an early night and to set her alarm for five in the morning.

It was still pitch dark, which wasn't helpful. She had forgotten that it was November in Scotland and the sun wouldn't rise until around breakfast time. It could be worse, she told herself firmly as she made her way carefully through the castle mostly by memory and by praying that none of the staircases had moved. It could be snowing again.

It was, and quite hard; she liked the snow, but not to run in. "Damn," she muttered as she picked her way around the outside of the building to find somewhere out of sight to warm up, checking her watch. Just gone half past five; with luck, Snape would already be out on the trail. When she reached it, she looked for footprints in between stretches to find out which way he had gone, and promptly set out around the circuit in the opposite direction.

There was a grainy light of sorts by the lake; whether it was reflecting from the water or somehow given off by it, she wasn't sure, but it meant she could see without needing to hold her wand in front of her, which was good, especially since the snow itself almost seemed to glow in the darkness. Inconspicuous was the name of the game for as long as possible today; now that she was actually out here, Hermione had realised just how bloody stupid this was, and was quietly fighting nerves even as she concentrated on her footing.

Nervousness became full-blown panic when she spotted a dark figure in the distance. Apart from anything else, she was too close to the Forbidden Forest to be comfortable; there really could be anything in those woods, and it was beyond foolish to be out alone. Which was sort of the basis for her entire plan, actually, but she was still feeling very edgy. Getting close enough to spot that it actually was Snape instead of some monster from the depths wasn't particularly reassuring, either, since she was pretty sure he was probably more dangerous than anything likely to be roaming the woods – with the possible exception of the now-feral Ford Anglia that was still driving around in there somewhere, anyway.

She knew the exact moment when Snape recognised her, since he skidded into the deep snow at the edge of the beaten trail and came quite close to hitting a tree before stopping dead. Concentrating on her breathing, and praying desperately to any gods that might be listening, Hermione gathered every scrap of threadbare courage that she still possessed and ran straight past him without turning her head or altering her stride, fighting the temptation to look at him. The skin on her back crawled as she fought to maintain her pace evenly until she had rounded the bend in the trail, when she broke into a flat-out sprint and hoped like hell that Snape was too shocked to pursue her.

Having spent every meal that day resolutely avoiding looking anywhere near the staff table, Hermione passed a rather nerve-wracking night before repeating her performance the following morning.

This time, Snape was evidently paying more attention, since he slowed to a stop almost as soon as he came into view and stood waiting for her. Her stride faltered as she started to slow down, before noticing that he had stepped to one side and wasn't blocking the trail; hoping she had guessed right, she speeded up once more, watching him warily as she drew closer.

He was worth a second glance, since he looked startlingly unlike her Potions teacher. For a start, he was wearing a rather muddy pair of dark grey tracksuit bottoms, a pair of snow-encrusted shabby-looking trainers and a navy long-sleeved t-shirt, dark with sweat in places; he also hadn't shaved, and his jaw was dark with scruffy-looking stubble that didn't really suit him but did make him look far less intimidating, especially once she got close enough to hear him breathing harder and noticed the slight flush of exertion in his cheeks. His disapproving and faintly irritated scowl, however, was every inch Professor Snape as he watched her, his arms folded across his chest; even so, he hadn't moved to block her way. Gathering her courage, Hermione jogged past him, nodding to him as she did so and carrying on with her run. He didn't say a word, but she could feel his eyes on her even after she had rounded the corner out of sight.

That afternoon, Hermione stared in some dismay at her latest Potions essay. Snape's spiky, narrow handwriting wasn't particularly neat at the best of times and definitely seemed to be getting worse – she couldn't actually read the second digit of her mark, but it was at least in the eighties – but the two words See me next to the number stood out very clearly. Frowning slightly, she glanced quickly over the essay, reading the red scribbles; it was the usual stuff, mostly an attempt to find something worth criticising, with a few terse comments at the end once again reprimanding her for quoting entire paragraphs verbatim instead of coming up with something to say by herself. There was nothing there that would warrant Snape keeping her behind to lecture her... which meant that he wanted to see her about something else; which, in turn, meant that her utterly insane plan just might be working.

After class, she approached the front of the classroom with some trepidation. "You wanted to see me, Professor."

He glanced up long enough to notice that she wasn't holding her homework in front of her before continuing to stack the essays that he had collected in a neat pile on his desk. "Surely you are aware that it is not safe for you to be wandering the grounds by yourself."

"Sir?" she asked, firmly suppressing the little quiver of nervous excitement in her stomach. It was working!

"If you say 'Sir?' again in that stupid voice, Miss Granger, there will be trouble," he said coolly, walking past her and drawing his wand, beginning to clear the remains of the lesson away with brisk flicks. "You are not actually an idiot, most of the time, and when you try to sound like one it sets my teeth on edge. You know exactly what I am talking about."

If you squinted, that could almost be interpreted as a compliment, or at least the closest thing to it that she was ever likely to get from him. Making a note of it for future reference, Hermione said politely, "I wasn't wandering the grounds, sir. I was just out jogging. I never left the trail, and Hagrid promised me it was perfectly safe to run there."

Snape looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "This would be the same Hagrid who created the Blast-Ended Skrewt, and who has at various times possessed a cerberus, a dragon and an Acromantula?" he inquired in such a dry voice that she would have laughed if it had been anyone else. "He has odd ideas of safety at the best of times, Miss Granger, and I doubt he paused to consider what might happen to the most notorious Muggleborn witch of our time should she be out alone."

"I don't think a Death Eater is going to be able to snatch me from the side of the lake, sir."

He raised the other eyebrow and gave her a look of mocking amusement, and she bit her lip when she realised what she had said. After all, a Death Eater was staring at her at this precise moment from less than three feet away. I can't believe I actually forgot. Trying not to blush, she mumbled, "You know what I mean, Professor."

That earned her a dismissive snort as he began to set the classroom up for his next lesson. "You can be as glib as you like, Miss Granger, but the fact remains that it is still not safe. How many times have you or your little friends been hurt because you were where you were not supposed to be?"

When she opened her mouth he gave her a withering look. "That was a rhetorical question, as you well know. This is not open to discussion." He scowled. "Since everyone else in the castle seems to perceive any form of exercise that does not involve a broomstick to be a mortal sin, if you wish to run, you will do so with me." His reluctance was clear in his voice; that wasn't very flattering, but she couldn't blame him. The whole point of this plan was for her to discover whether or not she could stand his company, after all, and she already knew he couldn't stand hers.

"Yes, sir," she replied meekly. "Thank you, sir."

He glared at her in response, which didn't seem a fair reaction to being politely thanked for doing something he clearly didn't want to do, and his voice was an irritated growl as he said curtly, "You will meet me outside this classroom at five thirty each morning from Monday to Friday. Do not be late. If you are caught out of bed, that is your lookout. I will not protect you, either from Mr Filch or from – Professor Umbridge."

She bit her lip to hold back a grin at the almost unnoticeable pause; he had very nearly omitted Umbridge's title, which given his usual insistence on respect spoke whole volumes about his opinion of the latest Defence teacher. "I understand, sir."

"You may go."

Privately doing a victory dance in her head, she nodded and left quietly, biting her lip again to stop herself smiling triumphantly.

Phineas visited her that evening just before she fell asleep. "Clever, Miss Granger," he observed quietly.

"Thank you. Am I off to a good start?" she asked hopefully.

"That remains to be seen. You've certainly succeeded in irritating him."

"I'm breathing," Hermione pointed out rather whimsically, stroking Crookshanks. "Of course I'm irritating him."

"Ha. True. But you need to be careful. Between your Healing apprenticeship and this, I believe he is starting to wonder just how much of his free time is going to be occupied by you. If you have anything else up your sleeve, I would leave it for a while."

"I don't, not yet. One step at a time."

"Good answer," he told her. "Good enough for me to tell you that if you turn left on the second floor instead of right and take the small spiral staircase down towards the old wine cellars tomorrow morning, I will meet you and direct you to a passageway that will get you into the dungeons without encountering anyone else."

"Thank you," she said, surprised.

He shrugged. "I can hardly watch how this unfolds if Filch catches you, can I? Besides, as you will see tomorrow, the passageway I will show you connects to a little-known exit from the castle. It is the route he uses to leave quickly when he is Summoned and the route he returns by. You need to know where it is, just in case."

"I see. Thank you in any case."

Phineas nodded. "And you have no other plots in mind?"

"I'm hoping that this plan will let me learn enough about him to decide whether I want another plan or not."

The former Headmaster smiled rather unpleasantly. "I think you might be disappointed there. You lacked a rather crucial piece of knowledge."

A brief chill of foreboding made her shiver. "Oh? What?"

He smirked at her. "Severus Snape is not a morning person."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 6 of 60

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