Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 7 of 60

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The warning turned out to be perfectly true. When she arrived in the dungeons at five thirty precisely, she could see at a glance what Phineas had meant; Snape was as scruffy and unshaven as he had been before, bleary-eyed – in fact, his eyes were only half open, and not completely focused – and clearly not fully awake.

"Good morning, sir," she greeted him a little nervously.

His voice was roughened from sleep and several octaves deeper than usual as he growled curtly, "Don't talk to me."

Hermione blinked at him; even for Snape, that was rude.

He elaborated slightly, with a brief waver to his voice that suggested he was trying not to yawn. "This is one of the few moments of peace I get all day. It is bad enough that I have to share it with you without having to put up with your babbling. I am not interested in small talk."

Well, someone's a real bear in the mornings. Biting her lip to stop herself smiling – not the usual reaction to Snape in a bad mood, but this was so unlike his normal viciousness that it wasn't remotely intimidating – she wondered idly if he was this charming to the other teachers over breakfast; generally by his first class of the day he was his usual sarcastic self. Under the circumstances she thought it was best to simply nod and follow him outside to begin warm-up stretches in the predawn darkness.

It turned out that when she had devised this plan, she had overlooked something else; namely, that she was only just at the average height for a girl her age, somewhere around five feet two or three, and that while Snape wasn't quite as tall as he usually managed to seem – not quite six feet, in fact – he was still quite a bit taller than her, and most of that difference was leg length. They had only been on the trail for a couple of minutes before she was finding it an effort to keep up with his longer strides, and by the time they reached the half way point and turned away from the lake shore to return through the trees she was seriously out of breath.

Snape had been running in total silence with his eyes half closed and his attention focused inwards, quite obviously miles away, so it took him a while to notice the problem. Once he did, to her surprise, he made an effort to shorten his strides a little and slowed down slightly, but with only marginal success – he clearly wasn't used to running in company, and nor was she. It took the rest of the jog back before they finally managed to work out a pace they could both maintain, and it was obviously going to need practice.

She wished him a good morning when they parted ways, earning herself a glare and a grunt that might have meant anything, and headed back to Gryffindor Tower for a quick shower in a thoughtful frame of mind. Clearly her plan to use this time to get to know her Potions professor better wasn't going to work out quite as she had anticipated, but overall it hadn't been so bad, so far. If nothing else, she told herself wryly, she was certainly going to get fitter – the man could run.

Once she was safely out of earshot, Severus finally allowed himself to yawn until his jaws creaked, leaning against the wall and rubbing his eyes tiredly before slouching off deeper into the dungeons to begin the long process required to transform him from his current somnolent state into a fully functioning human being. If there was an emergency, naturally, he could wake up instantly and be firing on all cylinders in seconds, but it would leave him feeling like death warmed over for the rest of the day and he much preferred to wake up nice and slowly.

He regarded his reflection blearily as he splashed cold water on his face, rinsing away the sweat. No doubt his appearance had startled the girl, but she was old enough now to start learning that men didn't look their best first thing in the morning any more than women did. The dreaded Professor Snape was as human as the next man, and he needed to shave every morning, and while his hair was always pretty horrible – especially these days – it looked worse when he had just woken up, and it took a while before he really felt able to focus his eyes properly or speak.

The cold water did its work and nudged him into stage two of wakefulness, which meant he could function enough to shave without gashing his face open. He preferred to shave by hand rather than by magic; partly out of habit, partly because he felt it was a better shave, but mostly just because it was part of the morning ritual that let him wake up and come to terms with who he was. By the time he had rinsed the last of the lather away he was much closer to being properly awake, and a shower finished the process; he emerged from the bathroom his usual self and padded into his bedroom to get dressed, thinking.

This morning hadn't been a total disaster. He hadn't enjoyed it, he'd resented it, but it could have been worse. Technically, he had nobody to blame but himself – nobody had actually forced him into this, although he doubted she believed that – but he hadn't had much choice. The logic was simple. It wasn't safe for Granger to run around the grounds alone. There was no point wasting breath forbidding her to do so, since the young Gryffindor could teach stubbornness to rocks and wouldn't listen. Therefore, she would have to be accompanied by someone. And Severus had spent years peacefully running around the grounds secure in the knowledge that absolutely nobody else was interested and would therefore not disturb him. That meant Granger either ran with him, or went off by herself and got eaten. Under the circumstances, he hadn't seen any point in raising the issue with his superiors; he'd rather give in to the inevitable with some semblance of grace than be ordered to do so.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he pulled on his socks and boots slowly, doing up the laces as he scowled to himself. She had agreed far too readily; he had a strong suspicion that she had planned this. And he didn't know why. Had it been any other student he would have known there was some sort of prank on the horizon – after fourteen years of teaching, he'd seen every scheme that petty-minded teenagers could come up with and he'd faced everything from bribery to attempted seduction and blackmail; he took considerable satisfaction in knowing that he'd never fallen for it. But he didn't really think Granger was the type to set him up – even he wasn't that paranoid; she didn't quite hate him enough for that – and whilst he certainly wouldn't have put it past Dilys to try and recruit the girl to spy on him, she wasn't capable of it. Presumably she was curious. That sounded so innocuous, but Granger had a unique mind, and once her curiosity was roused she became a force of nature to be very wary of. He had no intention of becoming her latest project.

That did rather assume that he could stop it, of course. Her status as an unofficial Healing apprentice gave her free access to some of the corners of his private world – not everything, of course, thank Christ for small mercies, but enough for her to potentially gain some of the keys to all of him. Nobody had ever spotted it so far, even those with all the information at their fingertips, which he was profoundly grateful for, but sooner or later someone was going to and it would be pretty typical of his luck for that someone to be an immensely irritating teenage girl with a compulsive need to fix things. On the surface, this new development seemed so harmless, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that it was the first step down a very slippery slope indeed.

Well, whatever she was planning, he'd see to it that she was disappointed, he decided as he did up the cuffs of his coat and shrugged into his robe. At least she wouldn't be chattering at him every morning; he was rarely even capable of speech that early and certainly never had the desire to say anything. Hopefully she would get bored with the idea soon, and until then he supposed he could attempt to learn to slow down a bit and try to run at her pace. She'd soon tire of it and try something else, and he'd get his peaceful mornings back. And, of course, if he detected one single word about this on anyone's lips...

He smiled nastily, well and truly his normal self now, and left his rooms to endure breakfast in the toad's presence. It was quite entertaining watching her suspiciously examine every single mouthful, and right now he needed all the entertainment he could get.

"Granger. Granger. Damnit, girl, wake up!"

Hermione opened one eye as she heard Crookshanks hiss in feline disapproval, and found that the picture frame above her bed was now occupied by Phineas Nigellus, scowling at her. "Merlin, girl, you sleep like the dead. Get up."

"Why?" Rolling over, she squinted vaguely at the clock on her bedside table. "It's not even one in the morning. And I know there's no medical emergency 'cause if there was, it'd be Dilys, not you..." She trailed off to yawn, her jaws creaking.

"We're going on a mystery tour," the portrait told her curtly. "I'm going to show you Severus' rooms. He'll be gone all night; we may not get another chance for a long time."

Sitting up and rubbing her eyes, she thought about this, still half asleep. "Why are you helping me all of a sudden?" she asked him suspiciously, echoed by a rumble from Crookshanks; her familiar didn't appreciate being disturbed at this hour either unless he chose to get up and go about his business.

The former Headmaster snorted. "I'm not helping you, I'm helping him," he replied cryptically. "Get yourself to the dungeons. Don't take all night, and don't let yourself be seen." He vanished from the frame without further explanation.

Hermione sighed and met her cat's eyes for a moment. "You can stop looking so smug, furball. If I get up, the warm spot will disappear," she pointed out to him, sighing and sliding out of bed to find her dressing gown.

By the time she made it down to the dark and chilly corridor where Snape's private quarters were located, she had woken up enough to wish she hadn't. It was freezing, she was tired, and she had to be up early. She also wasn't happy about this; if Snape found out that she had been snooping around his rooms, he'd kill her, regardless of their current uneasy alliance – and he wouldn't be wrong; she wasn't comfortable with this idea at all. And how on earth Phineas thought it would help the Potions master to have her poking through his things was anyone's guess, unless the portrait was just trying to cause trouble.

She stood irresolutely outside the door of his office, biting her lip. Ordinarily his office wasn't protected, but she'd never tried to get in out of hours before and she wouldn't put it past the Head of Slytherin to ward his door when he wasn't there. "Fine, I'm here," she whispered finally.

"You took your time," Phineas growled from the frame opposite the door, a small oil painting of a dark stretch of moorland at night. "What are you waiting for?"

"Where is he tonight?"

"None of your business."

"Well, when's he going to be back? If he walks in on me, I'm dead."

"Not for hours yet, I assure you. Stop dawdling."

"How does he guard his door when he's not here?"

"You can go through his office without a problem; the ward on the door is a psychic barrier and works on intentions. If you mean him harm it will burn you badly; if you just want to cause trouble it won't let you in; I don't imagine it will do anything to stop you. There are no frames in the office at the moment, so I will see you in his living room. His current password is 'Morning Star', for some reason."

The portrait vanished without waiting for a response, and Hermione cautiously let herself into the darkened office. She actually quite liked the look of this room, but Snape's collection of bottled things was even more sinister late at night, she noticed with a shiver as she hurried across the room to the far door and touched the doorknob. "Morning Star," she whispered, and heard a click.

As she opened the door, she contemplated the choice of password. There was a weapon called a morningstar, a spiky ball of metal on the end of a chain, but she didn't think that was it, somehow. She was pretty sure it was actually a reference to Lucifer, the Lightbringer, the rebellious fallen angel who had become Satan; he was also known as the Morningstar, or the Daystar. Nice bit of symbolism there. Prudently closing the door behind her in case anyone else was lurking around and saw the light, she drew her wand and whispered, "Lumos."

The first thing that struck her was the size of the room; it was a lot smaller than she had been expecting. There was a desk at this end, shabbier than the one in his office and with a less comfortable-looking chair behind it, covered in stacks of books and parchment and far messier than the surface of the desk in his office or in his classroom. Bookshelves lined the walls at this end of the room from floor to ceiling, and her fingers itched before she sternly told herself to behave.

At the other end of the room was a small fireplace with a clock on the mantelpiece; a couple of battered armchairs and a small coffee table had been placed in a rough semicircle in front of the fireplace. A liquor cabinet stood against one wall, between two doors. The walls were plain stone apart from a huge and impressive oil painting of Hogwarts as seen from the far side of the lake, which now featured Phineas Nigellus in the foreground.

"Am I supposed to be looking at anything in particular?" she asked softly, and he shook his head.

"No, but you wanted to know more about what sort of man Severus is. This will show you. Look around, but don't touch anything."

Nodding, she slowly circled the room, examining things and trying to stay away from the temptations of the bookshelves. A brief, guilty glance at his desk showed her that Snape kept his school work out in the office; this looked like his own private Potions research, or possibly a localised hurricane. It was unbelievably tempting to look through his notes to see what he was working on, but she wasn't going to invade his privacy any more than she could avoid. Apart from anything else, she didn't want to underestimate him; it wouldn't surprise her to learn that he could somehow tell if she had touched anything.

"Where do the doors go?"

"The one on the right leads to another entrance to his private laboratory, which as you know can also be reached through the Potions store room – not the one the students use, the main one. The door on the left is our destination tonight."

The door on the left led into a passageway ordinarily lit by a single candle, although it stood dark and cold in the sconce now. To the left there were two doors; to the right, the passage stretched away into the darkness. Phineas called softly to her, "The corridor is the one he uses to leave the castle, both when Summoned and for your morning runs; it's his private exit. One of the doors leads to his bathroom, the other to his bedroom."

One of the doors stood half-open, and proved to lead to the bathroom; she picked that as the less disturbing option and peered in curiously. All the Hogwarts bathrooms were pretty luxurious, and the Prefect's bathroom was ridiculously opulent; it stood to reason that the staff's own private facilities would be something special. If that was true, then Snape was clearly the exception that proved the rule; his bathroom wouldn't have looked particularly out of place in a suburban Muggle house. The bathtub was one of the old-fashioned free-standing ones with the claw feet, no larger than a generous bath would be at home – it certainly wasn't practically a swimming pool like the other tubs here. Everything else was much as she would have expected – shower stall, toilet, laundry bin, small sink with a mirror over it, a single shelf holding his few toiletries and a towel rail underneath it.

Hermione looked around, frowning slightly; a nagging sense of unease had started in his living room, and the bathroom was making it worse, but she couldn't quite work out why. Everything looked normal, but something seemed off. The fact that Snape's rooms were below ground and therefore didn't have any windows wasn't helping, but that wasn't it. Absently biting her lip as she thought about it, she rather reluctantly went back into the hallway and tried his bedroom door apprehensively.

Again, the smallness of the room caught her by surprise. The students all had king-size four-poster beds in their dormitories, but Snape only had a single bed – presumably deliberately, since although the room was smaller than she had expected it wasn't that small and could have held something larger if he'd wanted. In addition to the bed, there was a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a sturdy cabinet that doubled as a bedside table, and a small desk and chair; there was also a screen across one corner. Curious, she padded across the floor to look around it, and gasped softly in surprise as she beheld an absolutely beautiful piano.

"A pretty thing, isn't it?" Phineas commented softly; the painting in the bedroom was a watercolour of a remote beach in winter, starkly beautiful in an austere sort of way. "He doesn't play it very much these days, sadly." Indeed, the piano was somewhat dusty, she saw, and the nagging sense of wrongness increased. There was a rack of sheet music next to it that looked equally neglected.

Turning away from the beautiful instrument, she looked up at the painting. "Does he play well?"

"Yes," the portrait replied simply.

That seemed very unlike the Snape she was familiar with, but then, that was the point, wasn't it? Phineas was trying to show her that she actually didn't know anything about the real Snape. So far, he had proved that point very clearly. Hermione looked around the room again curiously, trying to work out why his quarters seemed subtly wrong. "Why is the piano dusty? Don't the house-elves keep it clean?"

"No. He banned them from his rooms years ago."

She bristled at that. "Why?" It certainly wouldn't be for any moral reason, so obviously he disliked them, which was hardly fair.

Phineas snorted and gave her a contemptuous look, but grudgingly explained after a moment. "Because the Hogwarts house-elves all answer to the Headmaster; Severus doesn't always get along with his employer and he refuses to let Dumbledore spy on him. The dungeons are off limits to everyone precisely so that he can hide away down here, and I can't say I blame him for it."

"Can I look around more closely, do you think?"

"Yes. Just don't break anything."

"As if I would," she muttered, stung, and glared at him before starting to nose around in earnest. The chest of drawers just held clothes; underwear and socks in the top drawer, t-shirts and undershirts in the next one down and trousers in the bottom drawer, all either black, grey or white.

The wardrobe held more clothes; his jogging gear was shoved unceremoniously onto the shelf at the top, and his frock coat and teaching robes hung from hangers along with a few white shirts. A spare pair of boots sat on the floor of the wardrobe, and there was a narrow mirror fixed to the inside of the door – presumably not an enchanted one, since it didn't say anything, and no magical mirror would have been able to resist the urge to criticise her hair, which was even worse than usual since she hadn't bothered combing it before coming down here. Leaning against the back of the wardrobe behind the clothes, where some wizards might have kept a broom, Hermione discovered a pair of elderly crutches, one of which bore a faded and peeling sticker proclaiming it to be the property of North Manchester General Hospital.

Finding a gateway to Narnia would actually be less weird, she decided, staring at the crutches blankly. There weren't many objects more surreal for a wizard to own; she was pretty sure even Arthur Weasley wouldn't be interested in crutches. Carefully closing the wardrobe, she looked around once more, biting her lip as the nagging feeling that she was missing something surfaced again.

She investigated the cabinet by his bed next, and blinked at the array of bottles and jars lined up neatly inside. Most of them were potions bottles, naturally, and she recognised a lot of healing potions of one sort or another, but there were a few bottles of Muggle medicines as well – painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics and ones she didn't recognise. There was a shoebox that held a box of plasters and surgical dressings, a lot of rolls of bandaging of varying thicknesses and widths, a pair of scissors and a smaller box that held a packet of needles, a roll of thread and an actual scalpel. Next to that was a locked metal box; there was also a book that turned out to be a copy of Grey's Anatomy.

This wasn't a bedside table, this was a sophisticated medical store, and one that clearly saw a lot of hard use. Hermione thought briefly about the bathroom cabinet at home, which didn't hold anything more dangerous than a box of ibuprofen, some mouthwash and a bottle of TCP, and shook her head. There were a few dark spots on the stone floor beside it, which looked horribly like bloodstains.

"What's in the metal box?" she asked Phineas softly.

"Enough assorted illegal substances to earn him several prison sentences in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds. Don't touch it, he's laid a nasty ward on it."

His drugs stash, then, presumably; apparently he still denied having started using anything hard again, but there were enough possible signs for Madam Pomfrey to remain slightly sceptical. Suppressing a sigh, she closed the door of the cabinet carefully. There was a notebook and a half-empty bottle of whiskey on top of the cabinet, along with the book he was presumably currently reading – it was in French and looked very old and she had no idea what it was. "What's this notebook? Does he keep a diary?"

"Hardly," Phineas said scornfully, giving her a withering look. "Much of what happens to him isn't safe to record, and I doubt he wants to remember most of the rest. It's a medical record, of sorts, but not like the ones you're familiar with. He has psychological notes in there, and notes on his sleeping patterns, and a dream diary, and all sorts of things. Poppy would give her eye teeth to see it – and judging by the look on your face so would you – but don't even think about it. It's tightly warded."

Hermione looked around the room again; just the desk left. Unlike the comfortable clutter of the one in his living room, this one just held three large spiral-bound notebooks. As she approached, Phineas said quietly, "Don't touch those. They aren't warded – which is very stupid of him; I don't know why he hasn't protected them – but don't touch them."

"What are they?"

"His sketchbooks."

She blinked at him. "He draws, too?"

Phineas nodded. "He also paints, as well, but like his music his painting has rather fallen by the wayside. He still sketches, though, and his art can be very personal, although it tends towards the surreal and abstract much of the time and I couldn't comment on his relative skill or ability; he only draws things that are very important to him. You don't need to learn quite this much about him, not yet. Maybe another time."

"That's hardly fair. You get me all curious and then tell me I'm not allowed to see?"

"You'll live. All right, mystery tour is over. Take a last look and then get out; if he catches you in here..."

"Yes, yes, I know." She obediently took a final look around the room, her eyes narrowing. "What am I missing?" she asked softly. "I think I can feel what you wanted me to see here, but... something's off."

Phineas made a sound of pure disgust and said contemptuously, "Are you a witch or a Muggle? Open your eyes and look properly."

Wasting a glare on him, she looked around again, thinking about his other rooms, and finally slow understanding dawned. Snape's rooms were small and sparsely furnished; all the furniture was quite old by its appearance, none of it was particularly ornate or decorative and most of it was worn from heavy use. There was nothing particularly luxurious anywhere; the armchairs in the living room had looked comfortable enough, but they also looked old, cheap and well used. Her eyes fell on the single bed; she didn't need to venture an experimental prod at the mattress to see that there was a slight hollow in the middle where the springs had gone and caused it to sag slightly. The clothing in the wardrobe had all been fairly good quality, although it was hardly Saville Row tailoring, but again it was all far from new; she took another quick look and noted the signs of wear at the seams and cuffs.

"Why does he live like this?" she asked Phineas softly. If someone had told her that these rooms belonged to a not terribly well off middle-class Muggle bachelor, she might have believed them, but it certainly didn't look as though a moderately successful wizard who held a fairly prestigious job and was extremely good at magic lived here. Even if Snape was poor – she had no idea what any of her teachers earned – it didn't cost any money to Transfigure or repair things.

"That's an important question, and one you should think about," the portrait replied quietly, for once not sneering. "For now, though, it is after half past two and you should return to your bed."

Safely back in her dormitory once more, Hermione warded her bed curtains to block out Lavender's snoring and settled down, closing her eyes and listening to Crookshanks purring as she thought about those rooms. The general atmosphere in Snape's quarters had been one of indifference; there were no personal touches, no ornaments and few pictures, no rugs or cushions, none of the small touches that made a house into a home. She had a feeling that everything was so worn and shabby because he simply didn't care enough to fix it, for the same reason that his skin was so badly scarred and his hair always seemed to need washing.

The other feeling she had picked up from looking around his rooms had been loneliness. There was no sense of comfort or pleasure, save perhaps for the books in the living room; his bedroom was more hospital room than refuge, his art seemed to be a form of therapy and his music lay abandoned and dusty. Those rooms were the home of a man whose life held no real pleasure, who was existing rather than living, and she felt very sorry for him.

When Severus got back to the school, tired and sore and thoroughly fed up, he knew instantly that someone had been in his rooms. Prowling around and investigating everything confirmed that whoever it was hadn't touched anything, nothing was missing and nothing was damaged, but that really wasn't the point. He brooded his way to a conclusion, and during his free period next day he unceremoniously called Dilys and Phineas to the picture frame in his living room.

Folding his arms, he glared at the portraits. "This stops now."

"What does?" Dilys asked innocently, and he gritted his teeth.

"Don't. I'm not in the mood for games. You know what I'm talking about, and it stops now. I don't know how deeply you've dragged Poppy into your little scheme and I don't want to know, but I can see what the pair of you are doing."

"And what is that?" Phineas drawled.

His eyes hardened. "Encouraging Miss Granger to take an unhealthy interest in my life," he said quietly. "Watching Poppy treat me was one thing, but everything else is a result of you two meddling – no student would ever even behave civilly to me of their own free will, let alone start looking deeper. She's a nosy brat and she doesn't need your help to seriously make me angry."

"Severus, don't be so nasty. She's been a great help so far; stop being so ungrateful."

"Ungrateful?" he hissed angrily. "I never asked for her interference. Poppy can do what is necessary. It's bad enough that I've agreed to be her guinea pig but I will not tolerate this. I know one of you let her in here last night. I can't prove it or she'd be in very deep trouble, but I know what happened, as I know one of you told her where and when I usually go running. I won't tolerate this any longer. Both of you, keep out of my life and hers. I have no idea why you're trying to push us together so often, but unless you want me to end up throttling her, stop interfering."

Dilys said rather sadly, "I thought you'd grown to like her, Severus. She's a nice girl, and she wants to help you. Why is that such a bad thing?"

I don't like being pitied. He said coldly, "Miss Granger is an insufferable know-it-all who has done nothing but irritate me for the last five years. I don't want any student meddling in my life, certainly not an annoying little nuisance like her. I don't want to become her next project and I don't want or need anyone constantly plaguing me. I will say this one more time; both of you, stop interfering, or I will not be responsible for my actions if you push me too far. Is that clear?"

The portraits exchanged a long look before Phineas said crisply, "Crystal."

"I'm glad we understand one another. Now get out."

"That went rather well, didn't it? I'm surprised it took him so long to snap; he must have realised a long time ago."

"Yes, it seems you were right after all. Interesting."

"Should we actually obey him, do you think? You know how proud he is; if we call his bluff, he really will lambast the poor girl, and it's not her fault."

"I think we should, at least for a little while. He can't be pushed any further yet; let him relax a little."

"Do you think we've done enough so far?"

"I would say so. Whatever he says, it's not just idle curiosity or a desire to annoy him, and he's not as angry as he thinks he is. I think we should sit back and watch. And I still can't believe you talked me into this in the first place, but I can't deny that it's working."

"I wonder how far it will go? You know sooner or later he's going to start being stupid and try to ruin it. If there isn't enough in place before he does, that will end it."

"I agree with him, the girl is annoying, but she's also not stupid. I think by the time they reach that point she'll be able to work out why he's doing it and make up her own mind. For now, woman, we've interfered enough; let them find their way by themselves for a while. If we do much more, Albus or Poppy will find out, and all hell will break loose. Leave them to it."

"How long do you suppose it will take? I think he's closer than she is..."

"I agree, I think he's already lost even if he doesn't know it yet, but she'll overtake him soon enough. It will be quicker for her than for him once things start moving. Apart from anything else, she isn't quite as stubborn as he is."

"Oh, I hope that's not true. She's going to need every scrap of obstinacy she can muster before this is done."

"What on earth are you two talking about? Some of us are trying to sleep."

"It's absolutely none of your business."

Hermione missed all the excitement in the middle of December. She woke up to find Gryffindor Tower humming with the news that Harry had done something, although nobody was very clear on just what, and he and the Weasleys had all left the school; utterly bewildered, Hermione went looking for their Head of House. Professor McGonagall seemed very distracted, but told her that Mr Weasley had been hurt while on business with the Order and that Harry had found out and gone to the Headmaster; everyone was at St Mungo's now.

Hermione listened to the story with wide eyes and made her way out of her professor's office feeling rather shaken; she was trying to think about the snake, the dream and everything else she had just learned, but the thought that kept coming to the front of her mind was, why didn't anyone tell me? She knew the Weasleys saw Harry as a member of the family, but... she'd thought they might see her that way, too. Surely it wasn't still about all that crap in Witch Weekly last year; Mrs Weasley might still feel funny about that, maybe, but the others? She liked the twins and Ginny, and Ron and Harry were supposed to be her best friends. Mr Weasley had always been kind to her and she'd liked talking about the Muggle world to him; she wanted to be at the hospital as well. She didn't know how badly he was hurt.

After spending several hours pacing restlessly around and bouncing wildly between near-frantic worry about Mr Weasley and annoyingly adolescent fits of hurt feelings, Hermione was driving herself mad. Crookshanks had long since got fed up with her and stalked off, and she couldn't talk to anyone else because only the Order knew about the attack.

Which, she supposed, didn't mean that she couldn't talk to other Order members. But the Headmaster no doubt had enough on his mind already and she didn't really know him well enough to want to pester him, and Professor McGonagall would likewise be busy, and Madam Pomfrey wasn't deeply involved with the Order and didn't know any details, and the only other Order member at Hogwarts was...

...not as unappealing an idea as he should have been, she realised, somewhat to her surprise. She doubted Snape would know much about the attack, or that he would tell her if he did, but she still wouldn't mind talking to him simply because he knew what had happened. That in itself would be a relief.

I am completely mental, she told herself as she left through the portrait hole and began making her way down to the dungeons. Apart from anything else, if either Filch or Umbridge caught her sneaking around, she was dead meat – she was very clearly not Umbridge's favourite person, and Filch didn't like her because Crookshanks had beaten Mrs Norris up in third year. The fact that Hermione hadn't known that until the caretaker hissed it at her more than a week afterwards didn't seem to matter. It was also worth remembering that Snape himself was highly unlikely to be pleased to see her – if he was there at all. He might well have been Summoned. The smart thing would have been to check with one of the portraits first, but she was tired and upset and a little scared and she didn't feel up to being a Slytherin tonight.

It took some time before her rather tentative knock on his office door was answered, and the result wasn't promising; Snape yanked the door open, looking tired and irritable, and growled, "What?" before actually registering who it was. He blinked at her. "Miss Granger? What – I thought you would be at St Mungo's."

"Harry and the Weasleys are," she said in a small voice that sounded a lot more forlorn than she wanted it to. "I wasn't asked."

"Ah." He regarded her for a moment, looking a lot less hostile than he had done a moment ago. "I'm afraid I have no news to report, Miss Granger. I know little more than you do about this at the moment."

"I didn't really expect it, sir." She hesitated, trying to find a scrap of that legendary Gryffindor courage anywhere, and failed to come up with anything; she was about to admit defeat and slink away when Snape spoke again, his voice softer than before.

"I have a great deal of work to do, but if you are at a loose end, you may help."

Hermione blinked at him and was unsettled by his expression; that penetrating black-eyed stare seemed to be looking straight through her and she got the uneasy feeling that he could see a lot more than she wanted him to. There had always been rumours that Snape could read minds, but she had never believed them – until now. Not trusting her voice, she nodded mutely and followed him deeper into the dungeons.

He led her through a door she had never taken any notice of before that opened out from one of the Potions store rooms and down a short flight of steps into his private laboratory. On the surface it didn't look much different from the Potions classroom or from any of the smaller rooms used by the more advanced students at NEWT level, but since Snape was responsible for the layout of all of them that wasn't a surprise. The equipment in here was more sophisticated, and there was a lot more of it. Crossing to the cauldron he had apparently been working at when she had interrupted him, Snape checked the contents briefly before looking back at her.

"I believe you helped Madam Pomfrey with the last Infirmary stock check?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then this should look familiar to you." He handed her a piece of parchment that listed, in her own handwriting, the potions that the mediwitch had decided were running low. "Pick one and brew a batch. I don't care which."

Hermione stared at him. "Sir?"

"Was there something about that sentence that you did not understand, Miss Granger?"

"...The sentence itself, I think, sir," she said faintly. "These potions –"

"Are all basic healing potions," he interrupted her impatiently, "and thus form a legitimate part of your apprenticeship. Ordinarily you would not be brewing them this early in your training, but a girl capable of brewing Polyjuice in her second year shouldn't find them too challenging. Besides, I am well aware of how dangerous you are when you are bored, and I imagine it will be worse when you are upset. It is far better for all of us if you are given something legitimate to occupy your mind, and I don't have time to brew them all myself. Now get to work."

The impatient snap to his voice jolted her into action and she obeyed automatically; the first few ingredients were simmering gently in the cauldron before her brain woke up and she asked incredulously, "How do you know I made Polyjuice in my second year?"

Snape turned from his bench and gave her a look of open amusement. "Come now, Miss Granger. You partially turned yourself into a cat. As Potions accidents go, it was quite spectacular; is it such a surprise to find out that I was involved in reversing the effects?" He chuckled softly, a thoroughly nasty sound, apparently savouring the memory.

Blushing to the roots of her hair, she turned back to her cauldron, utterly mortified and also somewhat confused – if he had known it was her all along, why had he never said anything? She'd certainly broken quite a few school rules on that occasion, as had Harry and Ron.

Apparently unperturbed by her emotional distress, Snape continued thoughtfully, "Besides, as much as I enjoy blaming Mr Potter for everything – and I do – I don't actually believe him capable of successfully stealing from my stores; he is certainly nowhere near skilled enough to even attempt something as complicated as Polyjuice, even now."

"Why didn't you say anything, sir?" she asked, aware to her irritation that she was still blushing.

He shrugged. "It is unfortunately not against the school rules to try and play the hero, Miss Granger, although in many cases it certainly should be – particularly in Gryffindor. Your motives were good, at least. It is against the rules to steal from me, of course," he added blandly, his eyes glittering with malicious amusement, "but the image of you with fur and whiskers has afforded me enough enjoyment over the past few years to be worth the price of a few ingredients, particularly since they were paid for by the school and not out of my own pocket."

Realising – rather too late – that this was a conversation she was never, ever going to win, Hermione decided that discretion was the better part of valour at this point. Biting her lip, she shut up and concentrated on her potion, wondering uneasily if Snape knew about any of the other things she had done wrong over the years. She really, really hoped not.

That had been the end of any conversation between them; Snape turned out to be quite an obsessive worker, and when she turned around a short while later to ask him a question one look at his face told her that he wouldn't even hear her. It would take quite a lot to break through his concentration right now, and if she succeeded he would probably kill her for it. Whatever he was working on seemed very complicated and seemed to be annoying him, judging by the way he was muttering to himself, unless that was just a reflection of his mood.

Despite his obviously increasing irritation and growing frustration as time passed, it was surprisingly peaceful down here. The sounds of the castle weren't even a background hum; it was wonderfully calm and quiet this far below ground, and although it was really quite cold down here the heat from the bubbling cauldrons kept the worst of the chill away.

Concentrating on her potions, Hermione nearly had a heart attack when the near-silence of the lab was abruptly broken by Snape explosively yelling, "Fuck!" in a tone of sheer frustration and hurling a glass beaker across the width of the room to shatter against the wall in a shower of glittering shards and a spray of some dark liquid. "Bloody buggering hellfire!" he added for good measure in a rough voice, before snarling wordlessly at the mess.

She stared wide-eyed as he whirled away from his bench before pulling up short and staring back at her; apparently he had forgotten that she was there. He actually flushed slightly, looking away a little guiltily as he shoved a hand through his lank hair. "My apologies, Miss Granger," he muttered gruffly.

The language itself didn't bother her; it wasn't as if she hadn't heard it before. What did bother her was the fact that it was very, very unlike Snape to start randomly yelling obscenities, no matter how annoyed he was – in fact, she was reasonably certain that she had never heard him swear. "When did you last get any sleep, sir?" she asked quietly, turning her attention back to her cauldron once more.

"Two days ago," he replied flatly, flicking his wand at the mess on the floor to clear it up and starting to sort through the ingredients on his bench once more.

"Can't you get some rest now?"

"Of course I can," he replied sarcastically, before sighing. "Would you like to volunteer to tell your Weasley friends that their father is dead because I needed a nap?"

Hermione turned to stare at him again. "I thought St. Mungo's..."

"Don't make me laugh," he said contemptuously, sounding about as far from laughter as he could get. "They're floundering around just trying to stop him bleeding to death before someone finds an antidote. Their Potions department is pathetic and barely deserving of the name and most of their staff are incompetent fools. I should know; I taught half of them."

"Why would anyone else know how to treat Nagini's bite, sir?" she asked quietly. "It was Nagini, wasn't it?"

He gave her a sharp look, before nodding. "It was, yes," he confirmed softly. "And no, they could not possibly know how to treat it. That has nothing to do with their general incompetence, however," he added crisply, before shrugging slightly and turning back to his work. "I don't know how to treat it, either. I am more or less making it up as I go along. I am in a position to make a more educated guess than most, but not by much. I try to stay clear of Nagini where possible."

"What kind of snake is she?"

"I have no idea," he replied. "Herpetology is not particularly my area of expertise. Her markings are similar to those of a boa constrictor, but she is highly venomous. I think she is related to an anaconda, but I really do not know. I can tell you that since Arthur Weasley survived the initial attack, he will almost certainly live; her victims usually die within minutes. He was found just in time."

"Do you know what he was guarding, sir?" she dared to ask, taking advantage of his unusually talkative mood.


So much for 'talkative', it seemed. "Will you tell me, sir? Please?"



"I said no, Miss Granger," he said repressively, turning his head to give her a warning look. He held her gaze for a long moment before returning to what he was doing and continuing in a less dangerous voice, "It is not my place to tell you, and it is not the time. I hope you will not learn that for a long time yet. Suffice to say that he was guarding an important secret that the Dark Lord would sacrifice anything to learn. I don't know what the secret is, before you ask. There is too much risk of his learning it from me." There was an odd note in his voice that seemed almost like bitterness, and she judged it better not to press him further about it.

"Professor McGonagall told me about Harry's dream, sir. About seeing through the snake's eyes. What do you think it means?"

"I have my suspicions," he replied distantly, "as does the Headmaster, I am sure. He will deal with it as he wishes. I am not his confidante."

"Is it something to do with Harry being a Parselmouth?"

"Damnit, girl, I already told you that I don't know what happened," he snapped. "I need to get this done before I am Summoned again or I collapse from sheer exhaustion, whichever happens first. Will you please shut up and let me concentrate?"

She did.

Hermione was badly startled some time later when Snape took her stirring rod out of her fingers; she hadn't heard him approach. "Time to stop, Miss Granger," he told her softly. "You were practically asleep where you stand. Go to bed. I can finish this."

She started to protest, but her body betrayed her, and by the time she had managed to stop yawning he was chuckling softly, his eyes crinkling slightly at the corners as he gave her an amused look. "Go to bed," he repeated. "You cannot change anything by denying yourself rest and in this condition you are likely to cause an accident. Hopefully by morning there will be some news; right now, you need sleep. Go away."

Reluctantly realising that she was in no fit state to argue, she nodded wearily and turned away from the bench, making her way to the door. "Thank you for letting me stay, sir. I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

He shrugged slightly. "Your assistance was appreciated. In any case, you needed something to do to occupy yourself. It is never pleasant to be excluded, especially under these circumstances, and you were worried. Be careful as you return to Gryffindor Tower; it is Professor Umbridge's night for patrol."

"Maybe I can push her down the stairs," Hermione muttered, before freezing as she realised she had said it aloud – she was obviously more tired than she had thought. Casting a rather horrified look at Snape, she relaxed fractionally when she saw that his dark eyes had crinkled at the corners again in silent amusement.

"Did you say something?" he asked blandly. "I am afraid I wasn't paying attention."

"It wasn't about anyone important, sir," she dared to say in response, and saw his eyes glitter appreciatively in amusement as he quirked an eyebrow at her.

"Indeed. Pleasant dreams."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 7 of 60

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