Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 8 of 60

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The rest of the year passed rather monotonously as far as Severus was concerned. The Weasleys had eventually remembered that Granger was their friend, and she was off somewhere, St Mungo's or the Burrow or Headquarters or wherever, and he was once again running through the snow by himself in complete silence. He'd spent the last month and more wishing for just that, and yet now perversely found himself missing the crunch of her footsteps as she kept pace with him and seeing her breath steaming out of the corner of his eye – more than that, he was now automatically running at the mutual pace they had worked out, slightly slower than he was accustomed to. That was strange, given how much he liked his solitude, but he had other things to think about.

It was strangely peaceful, actually. The students were surprisingly quiet, and he had no lessons and very little paperwork, and there wasn't much to do; he crawled into the depths of his dungeon and near enough went into hibernation, spending most of his time in bed with a book. It might be boring for anyone else, but it was absolute bliss, peace and quiet and undisturbed rest.

Even the Death Eaters were quiet at the moment. The Dark Lord might not like it, but many of his highest-placed followers had families and couldn't be absent over Christmas without betraying themselves – or so they'd said, anyway. Even the followers of evil needed holidays occasionally. And the Order were all quiet and happy now that Arthur was finally starting to recover.

Christmas itself was barely worth noting; he never received presents and didn't much care, since it meant he didn't have to reciprocate. He was rather startled to actually get a Christmas card, though, even if it wasn't much of one – just a piece of parchment with Merry Christmas, Professor scrawled on it – and spent quite a while staring at it. He couldn't say he was touched by the gesture, as such, but still, it was... nice. Sort of. And suspicious, too. Finally he shoved it into his desk drawer, buried underneath assorted bits of junk that had accumulated over the years, and did his best to forget about it.

The New Year was even less worthy of note; usually the staff had a party, which he was often forced to attend, but with Umbridge around nobody was in the mood to celebrate, and Severus spent it drinking alone and wondering vaguely if the new year was going to be the last of his life.

Severus wasn't pleased to be woken up before dawn on his thirty-sixth birthday. He got barely any sleep these days as it was, and he was still on holiday and would have liked the chance to lie in for once in lieu of an actual birthday treat. Scratching his unshaven jaw, he limped slowly to the door and let Dumbledore in, glaring at his employer through bloodshot eyes. "This had better be important, or I'm going to hex you," he growled.

"Good morning to you too, Severus," the Headmaster replied as cheerfully as ever, sweeping past him. "How are you?"

"Tired. Annoyed." In pain. "Wishing you would bugger off."

"The same as usual, then. I'm delighted to hear it." The old man twinkled at him for a moment before the expression faded, and Severus automatically tensed.


"Still so paranoid, Severus?" he chided.

"It keeps me alive. What do you want, Headmaster?"

"I have a request to make." Severus doubted that. The Headmaster didn't ask, he ordered, no matter what words he used to do so. Dumbledore continued gravely, "What do you think of what happened to Arthur? I would hear your thoughts on the matter."

Suppressing a yawn, he tried to gather his thoughts, not easy at this time of the morning. "Nothing we didn't expect. Subverting our guard didn't work, so he tried force, as I warned you he might. Arthur will be fine."

"That isn't what I was referring to, and you know it. What do you make of what Harry saw?"

Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been thinking about it – on and off, between all the other things he had to think about – for days, and he didn't like any of the theories he had come up with. The only concrete conclusion he had come to was that Potter was going to be the death of him; he was surprised his hair hadn't turned white by now – although he already had his first grey hairs, which was unbelievably depressing at his age. "Much the same as you made of it, I imagine. The connection you suspected is real, and stronger than we feared. The boy has a link to the Dark Lord's mind."

"Is he aware of it?"

"Not yet, but it is surely only a matter of time."

"And Harry?"

"Dumbledore, I never know what the boy is thinking, for the simple reason that he is seldom thinking anything at all. I doubt it. I am sure he has a dozen ideas, each more melodramatic and unlikely than the others, but I very much doubt he knows the truth. Even if he does somehow fall headlong over the right answer, he won't say anything anyway. You know that as well as I."

Dumbledore nodded slowly. "We must act quickly, then, before Voldemort discovers this connection."

Severus suppressed a flinch; he did wish Dumbledore wouldn't use the name in front of him. It hurt. Carefully flexing and relaxing the muscles of his left forearm under the sleeve of his nightshirt to try and ease the cramp that had started, he repeated very quietly, "'We' must act?"

"Harry must learn Occlumency."

"Don't you dare."


"No, I mean it. Don't even say it. I won't do it."

The Headmaster's voice sharpened. "You will. You must. Who else, Severus? You are the most gifted Occlumens I have ever heard of, better by far than anyone else on either side. Harry needs that talent now."

"Teach him yourself."

"I cannot."

"Why?" Severus asked with a sneer. "Too busy?" There was no such thing as free time for any of the Order, these days, but he was attempting two full-time jobs simultaneously – teacher and Death Eater – as well as brewing for Hogwarts and the Order, and his own private activities, and he was fast reaching the point where he was half-seriously considering trying to steal a Time-Turner just so he would have time to sleep.

"I am, indeed, very busy," Dumbledore said serenely, "but that is not the only reason. Harry is extremely angry with me at the moment, and both his own anger and Voldemort's less than stellar opinion of me mean that I do not wish to risk it."

Severus laughed hollowly. "And you think he is less angry with me, Dumbledore? We cannot stand one another, as you well know." Everyone who saw it tried to say that it was Severus' fault, but the facts were undeniable; he had hated the boy the moment he had laid eyes on him, yes, but equally, the boy had hated him in the same instant. Bizarre though it was, their antipathy had been mutual from the start... just as it had been with the father.

Dumbledore's eyes turned cold. This was the true face of the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, the side nobody else saw; there was no trace of the genial, twinkling old man now. "You are going to put aside your childish grudge, Severus, and you are going to teach Harry Potter how to Occlude his mind. Do you understand me?"

He bit his tongue for a moment, well knowing that it was futile trying to explain his childish grudge. As well try to explain colour to the blind. There was so much more to the story than James being a bully, but he had no wish to discuss it and there was no point in doing so anyway. "I understand, but you do not," he snapped, before forcing his voice to calmness; he needed to convince Dumbledore that he wasn't simply throwing a tantrum. "You don't understand what you're asking, Headmaster. I can't teach him this."

"Why not?" Dumbledore asked coolly with a stern expression.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he tried to explain. "For one, I come by my Occlumency naturally and use it through instinct, not with a conscious effort. I have no idea how to teach it to anyone else; I wouldn't even know where to start. For another, Potter won't trust me until several millennia after Hell freezes over. If he doesn't trust me, I cannot freely access his mind, only by force, and if I cannot freely access his mind I cannot hope to show him what he needs to do; additionally, if he doesn't trust me, he will not believe me, and he won't do anything I ask of him. You know that's true." He hesitated over his next point, not wanting to admit it, before adding grudgingly, "And I doubt I will be able to control my temper if I am alone with him for any extended period of time. Besides," he continued quickly, "I am not convinced he will be able to learn Occlumency from anyone."

"Harry isn't stupid, Severus, no matter how many times you insist that he is."

"On this occasion, I didn't say he was, nor is that what I meant," he replied irritably, knowing that the battle was already lost. Dumbledore hadn't listened to any of his objections; the old man had no doubt heard nothing except I don't like Potter. "He is simply too much a Gryffindor. Occlumency isn't about reckless bravery and honesty. It's about hiding, and he isn't capable of that to save his life, no matter the stakes. It's about keeping calm, and he was never good at that even before he hit puberty at a dead run. His nature is not suited to it."

"Be that as it may, he must learn it, and you know more of it than anyone, so you must teach him. This is not a request, Severus."

"Yet you said that it was," he retorted snidely as a sense of futility and foreboding chilled him. This was going to be a disaster. He made one last attempt. "Did you hear anything I said, Dumbledore? I don't think he can learn this at all, and even if he can, he can't do so from me."

"Severus. Enough. I will hear no further arguments from you on this. Do as you are told."

When do I ever do anything else? Severus met the old man's eyes and said very coldly, "As you wish. I would tell you not to blame me when it all goes wrong, but we both know you will anyway regardless of what happens. Was there anything else?"

"No. Good day, Severus."

After the Headmaster had left, Severus stared dully at the door and sighed heavily before turning and slinking off to shower and shave and start the day. Happy birthday to me...

Hermione had received another lesson in the need for a clear and accurate perspective when she and the others walked into the kitchen in Grimmauld Place to find Sirius and Snape facing off against one another with drawn wands. The cause of the argument was completely irrelevant, once Harry had explained it later – she was actually a bit envious of her friend, even if he was absolutely dreading it; Occlumency sounded really interesting, and definitely useful. What bothered her most was the look in Snape's eyes, and it was a memory that stayed with her throughout the end of the holidays and their return to Hogwarts. There had been anger there, oh yes, and enough savage hatred to confirm her theories about the two men, but under that had been something cold and calculating and very unpleasant.

She remembered the Shrieking Shack, and Snape whispering, "Give me a reason." He wouldn't act without provocation, he did have that odd sense of honour that Phineas had told her about, but he certainly wasn't above engendering that provocation to justify his future retaliation. She needed to keep her head and be realistic, she told herself; there might be far more to Snape than the spiteful and dangerous man she and her friends had always seen, but that side of him was still very much a part of his nature and she needed to remember that. Their current peculiar association was all very well, but it didn't change who he really was.

What really confused her was the way that everyone else in the Order dismissed it as a petty schoolboy feud. It wasn't hard to see that it had gone far beyond that and that the roots were far deeper; she didn't understand why nobody else seemed to have spotted it. Even before learning the full story, even right back in third year she had seen that for whatever unknown reason, the two men truly hated one another, and even then she had seen that for Snape it was clearly very personal, whereas for Sirius it seemed more out of habit than anything else. She had been on Sirius' side over Snape at that point – she felt a bit ashamed about that now, but in her defence, Snape had been genuinely unbalanced and extremely frightening that night – but she'd still seen it, so why couldn't anyone else, particularly Dumbledore, who did know the full truth?

The question that really nagged at her over those few days was how far would Snape have gone, if they hadn't walked in on the argument? Sirius would definitely have tried to hex him, and although she wasn't sure how the two men had measured up before, after twelve years in Azkaban the Marauder couldn't hope to hold his own against someone like Snape for long. Her professor might have started the argument deliberately and might have been in full control of himself – in contrast to Sirius' automatic hot temper – but she'd bet her wand that wouldn't have lasted once magic started flying; when he truly lost his temper and his iron-hard self control finally snapped, Snape was the most terrifying person she had ever seen. It would have been bloody, but she really wasn't sure how far it would have gone. She had never seen anything to rival Snape's hatred for his former tormentor. She didn't know his limits, and that concerned her; he was truly unpredictable, and she wasn't sure she could ever completely trust him because of it.

So far, Severus considered guardedly, the first Occlumency lessons hadn't been as much of a disaster as they could have been. It wasn't going to work, of course – he'd been right, Potter's mind wasn't remotely suited to it and the boy didn't have the necessary discipline – but at least he was making an effort, which might keep Dumbledore off his back. Besides, someone clearly had to teach the brat something; he'd drink Stinksap before he admitted it, but Severus was worried that Potter knew about the corridor leading to the Department of Mysteries.

As for what he was seeing in the boy's mind, well, that too wasn't a disaster. Oddly, Severus found himself vaguely grateful that Lupin hadn't shut up about Potter during his time as a teacher; he'd tried not to listen to most of the werewolf's babbling, but he did remember the discussion of what the boy heard when the Dementors were near him. Otherwise, he knew, he would have given in to temptation and tried to look for memories of Lily, even though Potter had barely been a year old when she'd died. As it was, he had absolutely no desire to hear her screaming, and had been very careful to avoid triggering anything too bad.

He suspected part of Dumbledore's plan had been for him to see how wretched Potter's childhood had been, in the hope that maybe he'd be a bit nicer to the boy if he saw how much he'd suffered. That wasn't going to work. Severus had already known that the brat hadn't had a nice time at home; even if the Order hadn't been watching him since infancy, he was good at spotting the children from less pleasant home environments. It didn't affect him; one, he knew Petunia Dursley would never go too far no matter her feelings, not against a child. And two, nothing he saw would ever be as bad as his own childhood had been.

In any case, he had other things on his mind right now, as his arm began to burn and he felt his heart sink. Tonight was the night the Dark Lord had planned to raid Azkaban. Either he had failed, in which case he would be insane with fury and would hex them all bloody... or he had succeeded, in which case there was going to be something of a bloodbath while everyone sorted out the new pecking order. Severus was going to have to fight to hold his place in the inner circle, and he wasn't looking forward to it.

Hermione met Snape outside the dungeons as usual. This early on a January morning it was still dark, but the snow almost seemed to glow, which made it easier to see; the snow was hard packed and frozen before dawn, too, so the footing wasn't too bad if you paid attention. He was silent as ever, looking even more tired and haggard; she constantly marvelled at how he managed to pull himself together and hide his strain between their run and breakfast. The mass breakout from Azkaban had been only two days ago; he had seemed completely unaffected, but she had smelled healing potions on him quite strongly the next morning, before she'd seen the paper and understood why, and it had obviously been a rough night. Gryffindor courage or not, she wasn't brave enough to ask him about it, even though she was curious.

Her original plan had been to try and get to know her enigmatic Potions master, but she had quickly realised that was folly. Snape didn't do small talk and wasn't at all bothered by the lack of conversation. Even so, she kept persevering, partly out of stubbornness and partly to keep an eye on him. In addition, the exercise was helping her; she felt stronger and was sleeping better. But it was more than that... silence with Snape seemed to have a strange quality. He had no expectations of her; he didn't require her to say or do anything. He was simply there, and his presence meant she didn't have to worry about anything. For an hour, she didn't have to be constantly on her guard, and she could let herself relax. These morning runs were her only moments of peace, as well as his, and she found that she was enjoying it.

Besides, very occasionally Snape did speak to her, if there was something important he needed to say. She was hoping that when he said during their warm down, "Miss Granger, wait a moment," she would find a way to ask him about Harry's Occlumency lessons, but when he had finished scrubbing his face with a handful of snow and eaten a little he gave her a rather odd look that she didn't much like and she realised she wasn't going to get the chance. "Come with me," he said finally, leading her through the labyrinth of dungeons to one of his stores. He took a large heavy jar from a shelf and handed it to her. "Do you know what this is?"

She examined it carefully; the thick orange liquid inside it looked decidedly unappetising. "No, sir."

"It's a more advanced, distilled form of Murtlap Essence."

Hermione blinked at him. "That's for cuts and skin complaints, isn't it, sir?" Why was he giving it to her?

Snape nodded slowly; he wasn't quite looking at her, which was odd. "It will help Potter's hand more than whatever you have been using."

She stared at him in complete shock. "You know about those detentions?"

"Obviously," he replied, but his heart clearly wasn't in the sarcasm, and her shock slowly began to turn to anger.

"Then why hasn't anyone done anything to stop her?" she demanded.

Normally, using that tone to Snape would lead to a painful and lingering death or at the very least losing House points and earning a detention, but he barely seemed to notice. Looking almost at her now, he replied quietly, "I haven't told anyone else, Miss Granger."

"Why not? Why haven't you done anything about it?"

"There is nothing that can be done."

"What?" She was really starting to get angry now, feeling strangely betrayed.

"Stop squawking at me and think," he snapped, still avoiding direct eye contact. "The laws put in place to protect the students, laws designed to prevent such abuse, were written by the people who sent Umbridge here in the first place. They supported her, and must continue to do so publicly regardless of what they might think of her in private; in addition, either they believe Potter to be a delusional and unstable attention-seeker or it suits them to pretend to believe it. Nobody is going to believe him – or me, given who and what I am – over her. Hogwarts cannot challenge the Minister. And do bear in mind that Lucius Malfoy still has a great deal of influence at the Ministry and is still on the school's Board of Governors."

"You should at least tell the Headmaster!"

"He may well already know. And even if he doesn't, what good would telling him do? He can't do anything, no more than I can, even though he is a more credible witness. He is being very closely watched, Miss Granger. We all are. The Ministry are just looking for the slightest excuse to get rid of him and take over the school, and then all your lessons would be as useful as your current Defence curriculum. You would learn nothing and be taken by the Death Eaters in short order."

Hermione felt cold as part of her realised that he was right. It felt wrong to realise that the teachers were just as powerless to act as the students were; she could see in Snape's dark eyes just how much he disliked the situation. For all that he constantly picked on Harry and many other students, he had never physically harmed any of them and had in fact sought to protect them from harm on several occasions; even he had limits, but Umbridge apparently did not. "So you're just going to do nothing?" she asked in a rather smaller voice.

"There is nothing I can do," he answered softly. "If I get a chance, I can perhaps take the damned quill off her, but it won't do anything more than inconvenience her for a day or two and make her angry."

"You should tell someone else..." she protested weakly once more, but she couldn't think of anyone who would be in a position to do anything about it. Nor could Snape, by the bitter sneer on his face.

"As Potter has?" he asked grimly.

"He's too stubborn. I think he thinks he's proving something by not asking for help."

"Partly, but partly he is more of a realist than you are, Miss Granger. Why bother asking for help when you know you will not receive any? Why give your tormentor the satisfaction of knowing that they are bothering you and that you can do nothing about it, that they are untouchable?" His voice was softer now and his eyes were looking at something far beyond the store room where they stood.

"It shouldn't be like this."

"No," he agreed very quietly, "it shouldn't. But it is, and we must do the best we can with the cards we have been dealt..." He paused, and looked her in the eyes with an intent expression, the one he got when what he was saying was important. "As long as the Ministry are free to tell their stories unopposed, as long as there is no alternative viewpoint available, as long as their public image is better than ours, we cannot act against them."

Hermione stared back at him, thinking about this, and after a moment he looked away. Biting her lip, she considered his words, and very slowly the seed of an idea stirred in the back of her mind. "What are you trying to get me to do, sir?"

"Me?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised – she didn't believe his tone for a second. "Why, absolutely nothing, Miss Granger. If as a result of talking to me you are learning to think in different ways, that's none of my doing."

Not remotely convinced, she looked at him. "Is this your way of turning me into a Slytherin?"

Snape barked a laugh that held absolutely no humour. "God, no; what a terrible thought. You'd be an abysmal Slytherin. If you'd been Sorted into my house you wouldn't have survived the first week. Now get moving, we're behind schedule today and breakfast is in twenty minutes."

Glancing at her watch, she yelped in dismay, grabbing the jar of potion and bolting. He stared after her for a long moment with a troubled expression before slowly turning away, looking rather grim.

It had taken everything Severus had not to burst out laughing when Minerva handed him a copy of the Quibbler in the staff room. He was going to have to find a way to give Granger some House points subtly; she certainly hadn't wasted any time. He'd known she had some kind of hold over that vile journalist, since nothing else could have ended last year's smear campaign, but he'd never thought she could do this. Even in this magazine, Skeeter had a certain reputation in the media, and although most of her stories were rubbish she would peculiarly add some credibility to the interview.

His amusement died when he actually read the article, though. "Damn."

"What?" she asked quietly.

"I didn't imagine he'd go this far. I'm going to be in a lot of trouble at the next meeting for not stopping him. He's named the full second circle and most of the inner."

"How were you supposed to stop him? You couldn't have known he would do this."

Granger's too smart for her own good and knows how to take a hint. His stirring seemed less funny now, although in hindsight he should have anticipated this. "It's my job to know," he replied absently, looking at the magazine pensively. The next Summons would probably be tonight, and it would be very bad. But... damnit, it was worth it, he decided suddenly. He'd rather drink molten sewage than admit it, but these children were brave, and he actually didn't much mind getting hurt for them.

It was definitely time to change the subject, before he vomited because of his own inner monologue. "How has everyone else taken this little journalistic masterpiece?"

"Be glad you missed it. You'd have been disgusted."

"Oh, Merlin. Were there tears?"

"Yes." The two of them exchanged wry glances. "It's only to be expected," Minerva continued softly. "They didn't know the full story. We'd heard it already, but nobody else had." She looked smug. "Potter's going to find a lot of House points coming his way this week."

"I'll have to increase my efforts at balance, then, won't I," he replied tartly, but he didn't really mind that either to be honest. The boy deserved some sort of reward just for seriously annoying Umbridge, and it wasn't as if the stupid House Cup was terribly high on his list of priorities any more. Besides, it meant he didn't have to find a way to reward Granger. "What does Dumbledore think?" he asked suddenly.

His colleague frowned. "I'm not sure. He was pleased and proud of Harry's bravery, but at the same time I think he would prefer if it hadn't happened. The Ministry are going to be worse than ever. Most of our members are being followed now, and life here is going to be more difficult..."

"I wonder what it will be like to have a difficult life," Severus replied sarcastically.

She snorted inelegantly. "That's true, but you know what I mean."

He nodded. "She'll increase her efforts to discover the DA, she'll work on further destabilising Dumbledore..." He frowned, thinking about it, then sighed. "Tell him to do whatever he had planned for Divination. I'll bet my wand arm that she'll sack Trelawney within a month, and maybe Hagrid too."

"You think so?"

"Yes. How do you weaken anyone's position? Take away their allies. Most of the teachers are too good, she can't touch most of us without reason, but those two have no chance. And make another attempt to talk sense into Potter; she's really going to be after his blood now." She already was. I don't want to imagine what she'll try next. Umbridge didn't have a clue how to control Potter, any more than the Dark Lord or Dumbledore knew how to control Severus himself, but she could do a frightening amount of damage in the attempt, and a woman capable of using a Blood Quill as a method of torture against a child was capable of just about anything.

He tapped the magazine with a finger. "This was a good idea. It's made the true story accessible to all of wizarding Britain. The general public are suddenly far less vulnerable. But it's going to make things very difficult here. We're going to have to tread carefully."

"It's worth the price."

"Gryffindors," he growled insincerely, rolling his eyes.

Hermione had only realised on reading the full interview in print just what it would mean. Malfoy's fury at seeing his father named had driven home to her that the other Death Eaters were going to be furious as well, and it was likely that the one to pay for it would be the Death Eater closest to Harry, the one who hadn't stopped him. That was why she was huddled under Harry's Invisibility Cloak, wrapped in Warming Charms and watching the Hogwarts gates at half past one in the morning. The Cloak was waterproof, at least; it was sleeting, a miserable half-frozen rain mixed with wet snow. Realising that she would show up as an inexplicable hole in the weather, she was standing under a tree, occasionally pacing back and forth a bit to keep warm and stay awake.

The sharp crack of Apparition nearly made her scream, scaring her half to death. She had retrieved her old Omnioculars and switched them to night vision mode, and she could clearly see the dark figure who had appeared outside the gates, watching as he sank into a crouch and remained motionless for a few moments before slowly and stiffly getting to his feet. She watched him unhook his mask and shrug out of his outer robe, and Snape let himself through the gate, shrinking both items and putting them inside his coat. To her surprise, he then pulled a rather battered packet of cigarettes and a lighter out of his pocket and lit up before closing the gate; she had no idea he smoked. In fact, she didn't know any wizard that smoked, and certainly not Muggle cigarettes – especially Lucky Strikes; she hadn't realised they even still made those. Her grandfather had smoked them when she was very young.

He was moving slowly and gingerly, and she could see him shaking with more than the cold as he lit his wand to light the path and limped past her. She could hear his breathing, ragged and pained, as she began to follow him, trying as hard as she could to match her steps to his and to avoid treading on anything that would make a noise. At least she couldn't smell or see blood, but he was obviously in a great deal of pain, and the trek up the drive took a long time.

As the castle came into view, Snape drew a rattling breath and said almost conversationally, "Miss Granger, can you give me a reason why I should not put you in detention for the rest of the year?"

After recovering from her near-miss with cardiac arrest, Hermione wondered ruefully why she had ever thought that she would possibly get away with this. Snape was the most intelligent person she had ever met, and if he wasn't highly skilled in observation he would have been killed years ago. Furiously she debated about what to do. He didn't sound angry, as such, but he was slurring his words a little and clearly hurting and wouldn't have much patience.


She sighed and admitted defeat, trying hard to sound cheerfully innocent without being irritating. "Because then you'd have to endure my presence more often?"

He rasped a pained laugh, shivering. "There is that, I suppose. Why are you out here?"

"I was waiting for you, sir."

"I guessed as much. Why?"

Hermione stared at him, glad of the Cloak's concealment. He sounded as though he genuinely didn't know the answer, or he would have mocked her Gryffindor emotions by now; he really didn't know that she worried about him. That's... really quite sad. "I wanted to make sure you weren't too badly hurt because of what Harry said, sir."

He coughed painfully and sighed. "That was the excuse this time, but if it hadn't been that, it would have been something else. Neither of you are to blame. And –"

"Don't you dare tell me it's not as bad as it looks. You can barely stand."

Snape stopped walking. "I beg your pardon?" he asked coldly.

Suddenly very relieved to be invisible, Hermione swallowed. "Sorry, sir. I only meant..."

"Miss Granger," he said quietly with a clear note of warning in his voice, "you are not my mother, or my nursemaid, or my Healer, or my master. Unless the Healer in charge of your apprenticeship calls you, my medical state is absolutely none of your concern. Do I make myself clear?"

Are all men this stubborn? "Yes, sir," she agreed meekly.

"Good. Get to bed before Filch catches you. Do not do this again."

"Yes, sir. Sir?"


"How did you know I was there?"

He snorted, flicking his spent cigarette into the slush and treading on it. "I knew someone was watching me the moment I stepped through the gates. The list of people within Hogwarts who would bother to do so is extremely short; the list of those who would do so without revealing themselves is even shorter. And I could hear you just well enough to judge your size. Now go away."

"Are you sure you're all right, sir? I could go to Madam Pomfrey..."

"She fusses over me enough without your help. It isn't bad enough to require anyone else to treat it. I can deal with it. Now go away, Miss Granger. If you're not out of earshot within ten seconds I will put you in detention for the rest of the year, no matter the cost to me."

For once, Severus actually had an evening to himself, and he was looking forward to it. No detentions, no Occlumency lessons – that was a relief; he was still disturbed that Potter had been able to see any of his memories, even though those ones had been relatively harmless – no Death Eater meeting, no staff meeting, and he'd even caught up on all his paperwork. He couldn't recall the last time he'd had a few hours of genuine leisure time. There were plenty of things he could be doing, but nothing was actually urgent, and he stretched lazily before dropping into his battered old armchair with a contented sigh. He intended to read for a few blissfully uninterrupted hours and then get an early night and hopefully enjoy a decent stretch of undisturbed sleep for once.

Despite his unusually content mood, however, he was still a cynic at heart, and he wasn't really very surprised when someone knocked on the door to his quarters less than half an hour later. It was so absolutely typical. Suppressing a sigh, he considered simply pretending that he wasn't there, but a moment's concentration on his wards told him that it was the bloody High Inquisitor – unless she'd given herself a new title – and she wouldn't give up but would annoy him all evening unless he answered the door. Hauling himself rather resentfully to his feet, he shrugged into his robe again and slunk across the room. "Good evening, Dolores," he said coolly. "To what do I owe this... honour?"

"Severus," she acknowledged briskly, sweeping past him – at least, it would have been a sweep, had she not been more than a head shorter than he was.

"Please, do come in," he told her sarcastically, irritably shutting the door a little more firmly than was strictly necessary. "Make yourself at home."

Ignoring this – he doubted that she had even noticed the jibe – she turned to face him and said bluntly, "I need Veritaserum."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" What the hell are you planning now, you crazy bitch? "Is the Ministry sanctioning using illegal drugs on the students now? I have spent many years wishing for the chance to do so, admittedly..." Although even he would never go this far. He'd threatened Potter with the truth potion only last year, but he'd never actually intended to use it, tempting though it was. He also didn't need to resort to such pitiful methods.

"The Minister has given me the authority to act as I see fit," she snapped at him, stung. "Are you refusing to help?"

I wish. "Not at all, Dolores," he replied smoothly. "I simply like to know what my potions are going to be used for when I receive such gracious requests as yours. I assume this means you still haven't discovered whether Potter is up to anything?" Because you're a stupid short-sighted cow who knows nothing about children? He gave her a look of bland innocence that wouldn't have fooled a toddler; perversely, he was almost proud of the so-called DA, and not least because he was partly responsible for its creation. Only almost, though, and he'd certainly never admit it.

Her pouchy face flushed unpleasantly with almost sulky anger. "No," she admitted grudgingly. "Enough of this, Severus. Do you have the potion?"

Fun though winding her up was, his fire-warmed chair and his book were calling to him and his free evening was dwindling alarmingly. "Of course. A moment."

He stepped around her and left the room, not worried about leaving her there; she had already searched his rooms, although she thought he was ignorant of that fact. Entering his private stores, he found the Veritaserum and decanted a small amount into a bottle, holding it up and regarding it with a certain amount of malice before bringing it to his mouth and spitting in it. There were much nicer and less childish ways to render it useless, of course, and he could have simply used tap water for all Umbridge would notice, but he had never claimed to be nice – or mature, for that matter. Placing his thumb over the mouth of the bottle, he shook it briskly to dissolve the saliva and examined it closely, noting the change in the very faint oily shimmer. Satisfied that it wouldn't work, he corked the bottle and returned to his living room.

"Here you are, Dolores. There is enough here to interrogate half the school if you wish; the needed dose is only three drops."

She all but snatched the bottle from him with distasteful eagerness and clearly wasn't listening. Severus shrugged philosophically; overdosing on Veritaserum wasn't going to do Potter much harm. At worst, he would have a headache for a couple of days and maybe a little nausea. Mercifully he wasn't going to be babbling endlessly, at least; he'd seen enough inside the boy's head to know he didn't want to listen to it. And he could feel faintly proud of himself for resisting the urge to add something to the potion that would have made precious Potter very ill indeed; it had been extremely tempting.

"You're sure this will work?" Umbridge asked, blinking rapidly and licking her lips as she studied the bottle.

His lip curled as he gave her a flat look. "I was under the impression that, having assessed most of my classes over the past few months, you were convinced of my competence," he said icily. Typically, she ignored this; she probably hadn't even realised that she had just insulted him again.

"The Minister thanks you for your co-operation," she told him grandly as she left.

Severus gave the door a withering look as he closed it behind her. "The Minister can go and bugger himself with a pointy stick with nails in it," he informed the now empty room, returning to his book as peace settled on the dungeons once more.

Minerva turned to him at breakfast the next morning with a raised eyebrow. "Have you heard the latest, Severus?"

"If you mean the Veritaserum, yes. She asked me for it last night," he replied around a mouthful of toast.

His colleague frowned at him. "I wasn't referring to that, no... are there no limits to that woman's madness?"

"I hope so," he muttered, swallowing. "What were you referring to, then?"

"The so-called Inquisitorial Squad." Minerva regarded him expectantly, clearly assuming that this would mean something to him. Firmly dragging his mind away from Monty Python again – Umbridge really should use different terminology if she wanted to be taken seriously – he shrugged and gave her a blank look, and she elaborated. "Certain helpful students are to be given powers above the prefects and even beyond those of the Head Boy and Girl. In essence, she has created a playground gang."

"Joy," he replied sourly, picking up his coffee before abruptly putting the cup down again as he realised what Minerva was saying. "Oh, hell. It's Draco, isn't it."

She nodded grimly. "All the Slytherin fifth years have joined her, and possibly some of the others."

"Damnit." He rubbed his eyes tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I could swing for that boy sometimes."

"I take it you didn't know, then?"

"No, I didn't," he replied wearily, turning his head to meet her eyes. "Ever since half their fathers told them that the Dark Lord would shortly be returning, they stopped listening to me. In the past year I've lost all the ground I've gained with Slytherin House in the last decade. There is very little, if anything, I can do to stop them now."

He continued to eat his breakfast in silence, without appetite, gloomily watching his students. He had done his best by his House, and for years Slytherin had enjoyed an almost unprecedented ascendancy, but... ever since Potter had come to Hogwarts, he'd started to lose them. Since the Cup had been unjustly snatched from them so humiliatingly at the end of the boy's first year, Slytherin had begun to lose faith in him, as Dumbledore's bias grew more obvious and the house of the snake suffered for it. Severus knew now that there was no chance of saving the older students. The current seventh years would have the sense to keep out of it, but some of the sixth years were probably lost, and all the fifth years would wear the Mark before the ink on their graduation certificates had time to dry.

If he had more time, he might be able to keep his influence on the younger students, but... sadly, Slytherin House was no longer his first priority, and that meant they were no longer anyone's first priority, because their Head of House had always been the only one who gave a damn. Worse, a lot of them knew it. This was what nobody had ever understood, the reason why so many Slytherins went bad. For every one who turned because they wanted power and enjoyed the darkness, there were two who turned because they wanted revenge for all the slights and petty torments or because – like him – they hadn't had anywhere else to go and nobody else had wanted them.

Sighing, he looked away, knowing that he too was failing them. At least he was trying, which was more than could be said for anyone else.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 8 of 60

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