Severus banged the door to his quarters shut and immediately started casting diagnostic spells on himself. Potions, curses, jinxes, he checked for everything but no matter what he tried, he ended without a satisfying result. Everything came back clear, indicating that he had neither been slipped a potion nor been cursed. It was impossible, it didn’t make sense . Everything hinted towards the fact that his sudden change of feelings was a natural occurrence, no matter how crazy or unlikely that sounded. But if it was really a natural thing, then this implied that those feelings would not go away anytime soon, and this realization terrified him more than he could say.
He was not one of those teachers, stalking young girls and lusting after them. The thought alone disgusted him. Still, he had found himself sleeping on Miss Granger's bed mere hours ago, sniffing her out like some sort of animal . Merlin! He could not let this go on, whatever this was, not under any circumstances. As a teacher of this school, it was his duty to protect the girl, even from himself, as it seemed. He would not go and see her again, no matter if he could not sleep or those feelings threatened to rip him apart. Until a few days ago he had fared quite well without one Hermione Granger, thank you very much, so whatever his body tried to make him believe, Severus was sure he would be just fine. He would just send the girl's potions via house-elf for now and travel to Spinner's End after the school had closed and those brats had used the Hogwarts Express to finally travel home. Maybe distance would break that strange spell and finally let him return to normality once more.
Spinner's End was cold and dusty when he stepped inside a few hours later. He had never been overly fond of the place, which was the reason why he never saw the need to invest much time or money into his parents’ house. But he also could not bring himself to sell it, as he still needed a place to stay for the holidays and he always liked the idea that Spinner's End would keep reminding him where he came from. Severus Snape was not a Pureblood, even though most students probably assumed he was, as he was Head of the House Slytherin by now. No, his father Tobias Snape was a bastard, a muggle and a drunkard and luckily dead for many years. His hate for the man was one reason why Severus joined the Dark Lord's forces many years ago and no matter how much he regretted the decision later, this house reminded him of what had been his reason for it. It reminded Severus of his miserable childhood, his mother who never dared to show any affection toward him, and of Lily, because the place where he had once met the red-haired witch was only a few miles away. He still visited it from time to time, sat below the large willow tree and stared into the water. Once in a while, he let his thoughts drift back to her and the only happy moments he had experienced in his life. He had spent all of them with her.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to visit this place today. Maybe his memory of Lily could help him to overcome whatever madness had befallen him? It was a long shot but by now he had slowly started to run out of ideas.
With a sigh, he dropped his travelling case and changed into his standard muggle clothes. He would use the chance to take a walk and see what had changed in his neighbourhood. Maybe the fresh air would help him to clear his head. If not it would still be a chance for him to exercise his body for a bit, now that the stairs of Hogwarts, which he climbed during his daily patrols, were out of reach for the next few weeks.
It didn't take him long to get out of the house, his wand carefully tucked away in the back of his jeans, hidden under the T-shirt he now wore. He did not expect to get into any trouble here and if he was, he would be able to defend himself without magic. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood taught you a thing or two. But he never knew what surprises waited for him; having agreed to serve two different masters made his life pretty hard to plan.
Cokeworth hadn't changed much over the years. No one had enough money to build or renovate a house these days and if anything the neighbourhood had gotten even poorer than it used to be. The streets were mostly empty of people, garbage and stray cats being what he most encountered on his way to the river. He knew the way by heart, would have probably been able to walk it with his eyes closed, but as it was he enjoyed reconnecting with his old hometown.
When the old willow finally came in sight his heart gave a small leap, like it expected to find his red-headed friend there. But Lily Evans was long gone, no matter how much he wished she was not. But fate did not give a fuck about Severus Snape’s wishes, this much was obvious by now.
“What am I going to do, Lily?" he mumbled, as he finally sat down on his usual spot and stared down at the river like he had done so many times before. "I'm not interested in some school girl, I’m not interested in anyone but you . So why am I suddenly feeling like this? I don’t want to feel like this, hope, misery... this is all suddenly so close together now. I’m suddenly content when I'm close to her, I feel like it would be a good idea to spend more time with her. But that's ridiculous. She's my fucking student and apart from that she'd probably run away screaming if I invited her for tea." He stared at the water with a heavy sigh. The knowledge that he had silenced the area around him was reassuring him that this embarrassing monologue would not be overheard. He knew that there would be no answer from Lily, there never was, but usually talking to her still helped him to unburden his black soul. “But when I’m away from her I feel like I suddenly can’t breathe . My chest just seems too tight, all of a sudden. It doesn’t make sense, Lily! You know me, you know who I am, what I have done. Until a few days ago I was pretty sure my heart was incapable of feeling anything positive or overly emotional. I have no right to feel these things after what I did to you and your family. But it’s like I can’t help it. I’ve tried, I swear I have. But whatever this is, it just won’t go away!”
The only answer he got was the chirping of birds, who had started to resettle in this area, now that the mills were no longer running and polluting the air. Fuck! He really was a mess, wasn't he? He could feel the ache in his chest slowly returning, distance seemingly not helping with whatever strange condition had befallen him. But he would not go back to the castle. He needed to finally get the upper hand in whatever strange battle he was fighting with himself.
He was just about to pull himself up to his feet again when he suddenly heard the pop of a house-elf apparition to his right. Indeed, a Hogwarts house-elf was standing only a few feet away, looking at him with a scared expression.
“Headmaster Dumbledore is seeking your immediate help, Professor,” the little female squeaked and wrung her little hands. “He is badly hurt, Sir.”
Severus felt like cursing. What had the old man done now? It wasn’t even a day since the students left the castle. Had the man already gotten bored and gotten himself into trouble?
"Take me to him then," Severus said with a sigh and took the little servant's arm. Not a second later they were gone.
The others were only gone for half a day and Hermione already felt lonely. Harry and Ron had said their goodbyes in the morning and Ginny had even brought her two books from the library to help her against getting bored. But Hermione had almost read through the first one and felt hesitant to start the next, as there was no saying when she would be able to get up herself to check something out from the library. But that wasn't it. The strange feeling in her chest was back and slowly Hermione was no longer sure if it was really connected to the curse injury. The pain from her scar slowly started to get better, whereas the pressure on her chest seemed to get worse and worse over the day. In the evening it was bad enough that she could barely breathe any longer which scared her enough to call for Madame Pomfrey. But for some reason, the Mediwitch was not available and did not answer to her call, which unsettled Hermione even more. Did somebody get hurt? And what was wrong with her? Had she maybe gotten hit by another curse, one that so far hadn't been detected and was now slowly killing her?
Hermione didn't know and she hated not knowing. But for now, she could only wait for the Mediwitch's return. Hopefully, her chest would feel better by then, but somehow Hermione doubted it.
"For fuck's sake Albus, this thing almost killed you," Severus muttered, wiping his sweaty forehead. "In fact, it is still killing you, only not right away."
That idiot! That arrogant old man! How could he have thought that slipping an old, cursed ring onto his finger had been a good idea?
When Severus arrived at the man's office an hour ago, Dumbledore had already passed out on his desk, Madam Pomfrey furiously puttering about the man without any visible effect. The medi-witch was at her wits’ end and it was no wonder. She was specialised on students and everything those dunderheads got themselves into. But this was the darkest kind of magic. Luckily for the Headmaster, Severus had spent years of his life studying exactly that kind of thing.
He had been able to trap the curse within the man's blackened hand. It wouldn't stay there forever but slowly spread through the body until Albus' heart would slowly give out. He probably had a year, maybe longer, but his fate was still sealed. Severus told him exactly that after Poppy had rushed back to the infirmary because the other patient , as Severus insisted on thinking of her, apparently had some kind of issue and had been calling for her. His Headmaster did not even seem overly worried over the news, though. He just thanked him with a kind smile.
“You’ve always been one of my brightest students, did you know that, Severus?” he said instead and looked at him through his half-moon-glasses.
Severus stared back at him with a scowl. “No. And it’s not like my intelligence was of much use for you here. You’ll still die Albus, as I find myself unable to save you. I am sorry.”
“Don’t be, my boy,” the old man said and offered him one of his disgusting sweets. When would he finally learn that Severus despised them? “You have given me enough time to prepare for my imminent death. That is more than I deserve for my foolishness. This last year is a gift, my boy and I promise I will use it wisely.”
Severus’ lip twitched. “I will brew you something with the aim of keeping that curse at bay. It might also help with the pain and buy you some more time. But don’t get your hopes up. That curse is a nasty one. I’ve rarely seen anything comparable.”
Dumbledore nodded. “I thought that by destroying the stone on the ring I had broken the curse. Obviously, I was wrong and I’ll be paying the price now.”
Severus left the man's office shortly after helping him into his bed. The house-elves would take care of him from there on and Poppy would probably be back soon, too. Now that he had promised the old man another potion, staying at the castle would be unavoidable, at least for tonight. Luckily he would be busy enough to not be tempted to visit the girl again, no matter how bad the ache in his chest got. For now, it was still bearable, but things would probably get worse as the night progressed. It didn't matter. He needed to learn how to deal with this new situation because everything else was simply not an option.
“I can’t find anything wrong with you, Miss Granger,” Madam Pomfrey said, staring at her with a worried expression. She had taken off Hermione’s dressing again and carefully inspected Hermione’s chest. There was nothing to see and even the colouring of Hermione’s newly-gained scar had visibly improved. Everything hinted that everything was healing as it should, so where did this terrible ache suddenly come from? It didn’t feel like anything Hermione had experienced so far, not painful per se, more like a massive weight that settled on her chest and seemed to increase with every breath she took. Was she possibly experiencing some sort of heart attack? She had read her parents’ medical books and a heart attack was often described as the feeling like an elephant had just settled on somebody’s chest. And this was exactly how this felt.
But no, Madame Pomfrey reassured her that her body was indeed fine and her heart was in perfect order. So why wasn’t she feeling fine then? Maybe she should transfer to St Mungo’s in the hope that they would be able to find something? Or should she simply wait and hope that the pain was going away? No, it felt like she really needed to do something, she just didn't know what. Maybe going to the library could have soothed her panic and helped her find an answer, but as it was she was still confined to her bed and a sleeping draught was everything Madam Pomfrey would offer her for the night.
Hermione sighed. She needed to trust the witch, she was the professional, after all. Still, if things hadn’t improved tomorrow, she would seek help somewhere else, even if that meant leaving Hogwarts behind.
When Severus finally delivered Albus' potions it was again the middle of the night. He felt horrible again, his chest too tight to enable him to take a deep breath. But what was worse was that his need to visit the girl was strong enough to force him to walk towards the infirmary, his feet no longer listening to his commands to simply carry him back to his chambers. It felt like somebody had put him under the Imperius, except being controlled by that Unforgivable Curse felt pleasant. This, on the other hand, was not. Still, with every step he took into her direction, the urge to visit her grew, whereas the pain in his chest seemed to lessen somewhat. And so it was only minutes until he was back at her bed. The girl was asleep, but it wasn't a very peaceful one by the look of it. There was a bottle of dreamless sleep on her nightstand, but she still tossed and turned, while tiny pained moans and whimpers escaped her mouth. His chest contracted at the sight of it.
Something was wrong with her too, he realized and without realizing what he was doing at first, he stepped closer and carefully touched her sweaty forehead. Her temperature seemed to be fine, Severus noted and he already wanted to pull back his hand, when the girl made a relieved sigh before leaning into his touch. He froze. For a moment he feared he had woken her, but no, knocked out by the Dreamless Sleep the girl slept on and suddenly her body seemed to relax and seemed much more peaceful than before. It was impossible, he thought, but when he considered himself, he realized that he instantly felt better, too. The pressure on his chest was almost gone, substituted by something that almost felt like happiness. It was a long time since he had felt anything like it, but he remembered the feeling from his childhood. He should probably have been glad to be able to experience it again, but instead, he felt terrified and hastily snatched his hand away. What did he think he was doing here, touching a student for his own satisfaction? But was it really just him? Miss Granger's sleep did seem more peaceful now, as her moans and whimpers had stopped and she now lay still in her bed. The physical contact seemed to have helped her too, he realized, but that did not help to settle his nerves in the least. What if the girl felt the same desperation as he did? Did that mean they would be forced together by whatever condition had befallen them? Would he maybe even be forced to touch her again? No, there needed to be a solution to all of this. Luckily he knew a man that was currently in his debt. He could only pray that Albus Dumbledore would agree to help him once more.