Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 34 of 60

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It was Lupin who met them at the door to 12 Grimmauld Place, looking haggard and angry. "They're in the kitchen," he told Severus in a low voice, giving the other man a seriously unfriendly look. Severus ignored it, naturally, but Hermione suspected it was because he hadn't actually noticed rather than because he had chosen to. She and the boys followed Severus into the kitchen; as they reached the doorway she saw him take a deep breath and square his shoulders, and he stalked in as though he owned the place, abruptly bold and confident once more. She had to admit, it was a magnificent bluff. Movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye, and she glanced sideways to see Phineas; the portrait saluted her with a grave expression and actually smiled a little.

The kitchen was almost empty, save for Professor McGonagall and Mrs Weasley sitting at the table. The Transfiguration teacher opened her mouth, but Severus spoke before she could say anything, his voice crisp and assured and leaving no doubt that he expected an answer. "Before anything else, what condition is Dumbledore in?"

Mrs Weasley answered over the boys' heads; she'd hurried forward to hug Ron and Harry the second they had entered. "Poppy is tending him upstairs, along with Tonks. You were right that he isn't going to be fit to lead for a while, but he should recover..."

"The two of you, and these three, are going to hear what's really going on," Severus said quietly, crossing the room to lean against the worktop, shifting his weight to one side. "Minerva, don't interrupt me, please. I know you've been trying to put the pieces together for months. Now I'm going to tell you almost everything. Firstly, what happened yesterday? While the evacuation was under way I went to the roof to raise the alarm. By the time I got back, less than half our force had showed up and you were all standing meekly listening to the Dark Lord rambling about how clever he was being. You weren't even armed. What happened?"

"Hestia's team weren't free to answer Minerva's alarm. They were attempting another raid on the Auror base in Birmingham with the information Alastor gave us last week..."

"Damnit. I told you that was a trap! Rookwood spent months setting that up." He sighed heavily. "So..."

"We were horribly outnumbered, Severus," Mrs Weasley explained softly, finally letting the boys go. Giving Hermione a hug as well, she ushered them all to the table and started gathering food. Ron tucked in first, but after a moment Harry and Hermione remembered that it had been a very long time since yesterday's dinner and joined in enthusiastically, listening intently as they ate.

Mrs Weasley continued quietly, "There was nothing we could do. By the time we reached the school, You-Know-Who and the others were already inside – I don't know how. They were ready for us; we weren't ready for them. We had no choice but to wait for Dumbledore to come back. And, too, we were stalling for time; the evacuation took longer than we thought. Once Albus showed up, he seemed so calm, we all thought it was part of his plan..."

Severus nodded and leaned back against the wall, gathering his thoughts. Professor McGonagall looked about to speak, but held her tongue when he looked at her. Finally he straightened up. "Back to the beginning, then. Draco Malfoy was initiated as a Death Eater last summer, despite not being of age, and he was sent to Hogwarts with two instructions; to find a way for Death Eaters to enter the castle, and to kill Albus Dumbledore."

"I knew it!" Harry said with his mouth full, and fell silent when his Head of House glared at him warningly.

"Shut up, Potter," Severus said tiredly. "He didn't want it. The whole thing was a farce, a means of punishing Lucius for his failure at the Ministry. Draco was never intended to succeed. In any case, his mother came to visit me shortly after that, to beg me to help him; I have been a friend of the Malfoys for many years, and Draco is – or was, rather – my godson. Bellatrix, Narcissa's sister, was with her. Between them, they pushed me into making the Unbreakable Vow, as I believe you know."

"Why did you do that?"

"Outwardly, to prove my loyalty to the Dark Lord. In reality, I did so on Dumbledore's orders. He had damaged his hand a short time before by trying to wear that ring and triggering the very nasty curse that began to destroy him almost immediately. My best efforts were only just sufficient to temporarily bind the curse into his hand and hold it back for a time."

"Is that why you cut his arm off, yesterday?" Professor McGonagall asked. "For a moment I thought you were going to kill him."

Severus took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I should have done."


"I should have done," he repeated grimly; his voice had turned a couple of shades colder. "That was the plan. The curse is a very dark corruption spell and it has no cure. Dumbledore has been dying for the past year. He has known it ever since last summer."

There was a very long silence. Hermione had put together some of the puzzle, she had worked out that Voldemort was expecting Severus to kill Dumbledore if Draco couldn't do it, but she hadn't realised Dumbledore supported that plan, because it just seemed so insane. She cleared her throat. "That's what the Headmaster asked you to do, isn't it?" she asked quietly. "That's the mysterious task nobody knew about."

Severus nodded. His black eyes were cold and empty and emotionless. "Yes. He told me to kill him when the time came, in such a way that the Dark Lord would be convinced of my loyalty. I suspect several motives for this decision, but the one he admitted to was his hope that I would then be placed in charge at Hogwarts by the Dark Lord and would be in a position to protect the children as well as aiding the three of you in your own task."

He smiled bitterly. "How I was supposed to do that, when I am convinced that he never had any intention of telling anyone else his plan and would therefore be condemning me to universal hatred and mistrust, I do not know, but apparently he believed you would trust his murderer? In any case, that was the plan. He gave me the Dark Arts post at last because one way or another I would no longer be teaching at Hogwarts at the end of the year and because it might be the last chance I had to teach the three of you to defend yourselves properly; also because he needed Slughorn under his eye, and of course because nobody else applied. He did not intend that I should learn of the real plan until after he was dead – possibly not even then; he always did like making me follow orders blindly."

He rolled his shoulders stiffly and looked at the two older witches. "So, that is what has been happening all year. I went along with the plan because I didn't think I was going to live long enough for it to matter, but a couple of months ago I discovered what task Dumbledore has given Potter and his friends, and I decided to change the rules."

Hermione had to look down to hide a rueful smile; that was a hell of a way to sum up the past six months or so. He'd skipped over a torturous near-death experience and an extremely passionate, heated and probably illegal kiss, as well as quite a bit of conspiring behind Dumbledore's back and a lot of meddling from portraits of dead people – one of whom was sniggering very softly, just out of sight, and the other was no doubt absolutely furious that she couldn't be present.

Severus continued as though he hadn't said anything unusual, "Originally I wanted to break the Unbreakable Vow. I had sworn it initially in the name of my godson; I therefore disowned Draco formally. Naturally, it didn't work," he added dryly. "It was never going to be that simple. But it did weaken the Vow, at least, which presumably made last night possible."

"What happened last night?" Professor McGonagall asked quietly; she had a rather distant expression and was obviously thinking very hard about what he had already revealed. "Amputating the cursed hand... why didn't you do that before?"

He gave her an odd look and sighed. "It hasn't cured him. I told you, the curse is fatal. Removing the original source has slowed its advance and bought us time, nothing more – if it would have cured him, we could have done it months ago. And to achieve even that much, I betrayed everything."

"Then why do it? Albus was... I have never seen him so angry."

He sighed again, looking very tired now, and his voice was softer as he replied, "I did it because I couldn't have killed him and survived. I've seen enough death. I hate him, but I've known him since I was a boy and my sanity could not have taken any more. Besides, his plan wouldn't have worked. He refused to tell any of you; you would have believed, as you did briefly last night, that I had betrayed you all and gone over to the Death Eaters once more. None of you would have trusted me. I could have achieved nothing useful. In addition, as the Dark Lord's Headmaster, I would have had to make Hogwarts a place of nightmares none of you can even begin to imagine. Children would have been hurt, probably killed, and I would not have survived the experience with my mind intact. Far better to close the school and focus all the Order's resources on fighting the other side, under a leader who knows what is going on, instead of having you all flailing around like headless chickens while Potter and his friends were left alone and unprotected for their own task and I was forced to torture your children until I went insane."

There was quite a long silence following that. Severus leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes briefly, clearly nearing his limits once more. Hermione glanced at Harry and Ron before sitting back and biting her lip absently, thinking hard, fitting the pieces together properly, as Mrs Weasley and Professor McGonagall exchanged troubled looks.

"I suppose I can see your point," Professor McGonagall said faintly at last, sounding a little uneasy. "Put like that, it doesn't sound like much of a plan. But this is all very hard to believe, Severus... can you prove it? I don't mean to doubt, but..."

"He's telling the truth," Phineas said quietly, appearing in the small picture frame by the back door. "Every word. Listen to him, Minerva. Your lives and the outcome of this war may depend on this conversation. You haven't heard it all yet."

Severus opened his eyes again and nodded grimly. "The Order don't need to know any of this. I'm telling the two of you so you can hold things together. Minerva, you're going to have to take over from Dumbledore. I don't know how long he has to live; I estimated just over a year, and that was last summer. Removing his hand has bought a little time to add to that, but he cannot have more than six months left at best and it is more likely to be far less than that. He cannot lead you now. The other reason I challenged his plan is because I believe the curse has reached his brain. That plan I have just described to you is not sane, and I have begun to seriously doubt his judgement in recent months. His actions have become less rational. You will have to explain this to him somehow."

"You speak as if you won't be part of this, Severus," Mrs Weasley said faintly; Professor McGonagall had gone rather pale.

He gave her his crooked half-smile. "I hereby resign from the Order of the Phoenix. I know the real task that Dumbledore gave to Potter and his friends, and that is what I shall be doing from now on. I'm not going to tell you what it is; it is far safer if nobody else knows, but it's how we're going to win. I cannot help you now, Molly. I'm not a spy any more, after all."

"What of You-Know-Who? Can he find you?"

"No," he replied, without elaborating. "The time has come to discuss the future. You three need to decide what you're going to do. You know what's at stake. Pick a side."

Hermione sat back and looked at Harry calmly; she had made her choice a long time ago. He looked at her and grinned briefly before glancing at Ron, who nodded with a matching grin. Looking back at Severus, Harry shrugged. "We're going with you."

"What?" Professor McGonagall sounded startled, as well she might.

Severus barked a mirthless laugh. "We have finally reached a truce of sorts over the past year, Minerva. Their task – our task, now, I suppose – is too important. They will need my help anyway, with Dumbledore out of action."

"I have a question," Hermione said softly. He looked at her with a flicker of a smile in his eyes, and she asked, "What about the Unbreakable Vow? You said you hadn't broken it, only weakened it. What happened in the Great Hall, if you didn't kill the Headmaster?"

"Ah. I am not entirely certain," he admitted candidly. "I knocked Draco out, by the way, in case you hadn't worked that one out. Dumbledore was right that he couldn't have done it, and this way he won't be punished for failing his second task, not when he successfully brought the Death Eaters into Hogwarts – I'd like to know how he did that," he added thoughtfully. "I left the meeting before that was revealed. Anyway, it kept Draco safe, which is likely to be far more important than it seems. As for the Vow..."

Pausing, he shifted his weight again and rubbed his eyes once more; his fingers trembled slightly. He clearly wasn't recovered from the fights of yesterday. "It is still there. But there was no time frame specified in the words. Draco is still physically capable of killing Dumbledore; the fact that he will never be in a position to do so is immaterial. It could theoretically still happen, so the Vow has not compelled me to do so. That may not still be the case should I meet with Dumbledore again, so I dare not see him. If the Vow activates, I will have to kill him, or die myself. I think, if he dies of natural causes before the Vow can be fulfilled, it will simply fade away once it is no longer relevant. It may not; I may feel it and be called on to kill him once he truly begins to die. I really don't know."

"When did you come up with your plan?" Harry asked.

Severus paused for a moment and looked down, a very slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "As I was walking towards Dumbledore in the Great Hall, less than twenty four hours ago. Until that point, I thought I would have to kill him."

"Did you know it would work?" Hermione asked, already knowing the answer.

"I wasn't completely sure, no, but the logic was sound. And since I am still alive, I am inclined to call it a victory." His eyes glittered for a moment, daring her to say anything else, and she bit her tongue; she could always kill him later, less publicly.

"What was that thing you did at the end, when we left?" Ron asked. "When everyone started screaming?"

He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "The Dark Mark is a conduit. I took control of the link that the Dark Lord normally uses; in effect, I sent a full-strength Summons through it. We were all in close enough proximity for it to hurt a lot more than it usually does. It didn't affect him, naturally, since he does not possess the Mark himself, but it distracted everyone else."

"It hurt you as well," Hermione pointed out, and he gave her a rather blank look as though he didn't see why that made any difference.

"All right," Professor McGonagall said heavily. "For the moment, let us assume that you're right. I'll need to talk to Albus before I decide one way or the other, but I can see the logic behind your actions. So, the four of you will be doing some mysterious task. What about the rest of us?"

Severus frowned, staring into the distance. "I don't know much, but we must assume the worst, I think... I was never going to be involved in any of the Ministry plans so I don't know everything they wanted to do, but I know enough to give you a general idea. They will attempt to Imperio the Minister but if it doesn't take hold they'll simply kill him and replace him, and kill anyone who objects. It's going to be a brutal coup and it's probably already happened. The Dark Lord's goal is complete control. He's going to demand that every witch and wizard in Britain registers their blood status publicly, and he intends to arrest every Muggleborn, although I don't know what exactly he wants, whether he'll kill them or if he has something else in mind. He intended to run Hogwarts as a training ground for junior Death Eaters, too, but with no teachers and only a handful of pupils I don't think it very likely; he has nobody he would trust as Headmaster, now, either," he added with a certain amount of satisfaction. "Even so, the school was important to him and I don't think he'll give it up lightly. There's probably already a price on Potter's head, and probably mine as well, although it will take them a while to get around to everyone else. The Ministry will be brought to heel – he's been working on it for months. Threats, blackmail, compulsion magic, whatever it takes. They will fall, and soon."

"Won't your defection cause problems?" Hermione asked. "Will he stop to look for other traitors?"

"I don't know. He will do at some stage, but he can't afford to waste time. His plans haven't worked; Dumbledore is still alive and the Order is still very much a threat. He has to move quickly before we all have time to regroup and oppose him. Besides, I was the only one he couldn't be sure of; some of the others have rudimentary Occlumency skills, but nowhere near strong enough to resist him. If he were sane, it might make him wary, but as it is I think he'll carry on regardless."

"So Vol –" Harry started, and choked on a Silencing charm.

Severus looked at him and shook his head slowly. "Do not use his name now. I should have thought to mention it earlier. By now, with Hogwarts fallen, they'll already be in the Ministry; one of their first planned actions was to set up a Taboo. Anyone using the Dark Lord's name will be traced and attacked, because only Order members are brave enough and stupid enough to do so. We're protected here, but I'm sure Dumbledore has said the name often enough to draw a lot of attention." He looked back at Professor McGonagall. "You need to get the Order organised and make sure the safe houses are protected, then work on creating underground opposition – you can't fight them openly now. There are too many of them and too few of you."

"Viva la Resistance," Hermione muttered sarcastically, and he offered her a quick half-smile in wry appreciation, nodding.

"Yes. I'm sure you can find some ways of causing chaos, Minerva – you have plenty of Gryffindors skilled at causing mayhem. I can't give you any more specific advice. Just... let the country know the Order is still resisting. Let them see there is still a choice. Try not to get killed in stupidly noble ways."

"What do I tell the rest of the Order when they ask what's going on and why this is happening?"

"I don't care," he replied bluntly. "I'm going to have enough to do without worrying about that. Tell them to shut up and do as you say. You've taught most of them, they'll listen."

"Funny. What are you going to be doing? I know you won't tell us the specifics, but where will you be?"

"Somewhere safe," Severus replied unhelpfully. "I will reopen the Floo connection between there and here, but it's going to be guarded, nothing's going to get through unless I want it to. And we'll be able to be reached by Patronus or owl."

"Do you need anything?" Mrs Weasley asked quietly.

He almost smiled. "Well, these three will need clothes and so on. We're not going to have much time for shopping, really, and we all left Hogwarts with nothing."

"I can send some of Ron's things from the Burrow... they'll be a bit big in the shoulders for you, Harry, but they'll do. Hermione, you can't really wear Ginny's clothes, can you?"

That was a tactful way of pointing out that she was shorter and curvier than her red-headed friend; Hermione smiled gratefully and shrugged. "Not easily, but I can Transfigure clothing. Whatever you can send would be lovely, thank you."

"What about food and things?"

Severus almost smiled. "Molly, I've been looking after myself since I was their age. They won't starve or live in filth. I may even refrain from killing any of them, if we're busy enough and if they manage to behave."

"Poppy told us earlier that you have been supplying our potions for the past – well, decade or so, actually," Professor McGonagall said quietly. "Is that true?"

"Yes. What of it?" he asked, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Poppy is more than capable of brewing anything you are likely to need. In the event of unforeseen circumstances, contact me and I'll see what I can do."

"What about Remus' Wolfsbane?" Mrs Weasley asked.

He shook his head slowly. "No. I don't have the facilities to make something that complex, or a way to obtain half the ingredients, and I won't have time to come back here and work on it." He smirked unpleasantly. "You're going to have to go back to locking him up somewhere. Lupin is not terribly high on my list of priorities right now. Is there anything else?"

"I'm sure I'll think of things to ask later," Professor McGonagall said with a sigh, "but for the moment I suppose we have enough to be going on with. I will have to talk about all this with Albus and see what he says... but Severus, I wish you had told me at least some of this before now."

You and me both, Hermione thought sourly, watching as Severus shrugged uneasily. "I couldn't, Minerva. I... I am sorry it has turned out like this," he added awkwardly, looking away. "If things work out..."

"Oh, go away," she said with an inelegant snort. "We both know you won't tell me a damned thing no matter what happens. Just make sure you look after my Gryffindors, or I will skin you." She turned to look at the three of them. "And you are to behave yourselves. I don't know what's going on but I don't want to have to explain your sudden and messy deaths to anyone. Be careful."

Caught off guard, Hermione joined in the mumbled chorus of, "Yes, Professor," before submitting to another of Mrs Weasley's strangling hugs. As she watched the boys enduring the same treatment, she glanced at the small picture frame on the wall, meeting Phineas' gaze.

"Good luck," the portrait told her softly. "Hopefully we will meet again."

The four of them headed back to Spinner's End in silence; Severus was staring at nothing with slightly glassy eyes, clearly utterly exhausted, and the others had a great deal to think about. Trailing after him into the kitchen, they settled around the battered table.

"What's going to happen to Hogwarts now?" Harry asked in a subdued voice after a moment of them looking awkwardly at one another. "Will Vol – uh, You-Know-Who stay there?"

"No," Severus replied quietly. "It's too far from everywhere else for him to use it as a viable base of operations, for a start. Besides..." He paused, frowning pensively, and slowly shook his head. "The castle would not permit it. You know how responsive the building can be. As it rejected Umbridge, it will reject the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters. The ghosts and the house elves are still there and would not hesitate to fight, as will the inhabitants of the Forbidden Forest."

"Could we go back there? I mean the Order, but maybe we could pick up some stuff too."

"He'll have it guarded. In some ways he is much like a child with too many toys – he may not be able to play with it himself, but he'll never allow anyone else to do so. In his own twisted way he does care about Hogwarts, a little. We are fortunate that he is not going to stay there, since he might discover his Horcrux is missing if he were. But you will have to do without your broom for a while – unless you expect me to believe you were intending to collect your homework," he added dryly. "And even if he didn't place guards, the castle is no longer safe for anyone."


"It's rather complicated, but as we all left the building, Dumbledore activated the high-level wards – you have no idea of the security in place at Hogwarts. I don't know how it works, not fully; the Headmaster is the only one who does. Once he had done so, I switched them on as I left, using my blood. As I said, it is complicated, but that put the castle into war mode, I suppose. It will be resistant to any witch or wizard except its master, and openly hostile to any adults. It won't be safe until it has been cleansed. Don't ask me exactly how it works, because I don't know."

"Is it safe here?" Ron asked. "I mean, I know you said You-Know-Who doesn't know where it is, but does anyone else?"

"It's safe," Severus answered. "I would not be here if it weren't, let alone dragging you three here. For one, absolutely nobody is ever going to imagine that you lot would be staying with me, are they? They'll assume you're at Headquarters or the Burrow, or another safe house they don't know about. Nobody in the Order knows where I live – I caused a lot of problems when I first became a teacher by flatly refusing to give Dumbledore my address and by removing the record of where I lived while I was a pupil. But you are no doubt referring to Bellatrix and Narcissa? Narcissa modified her sister's memory when they left, as a favour to me, and said that I had done it to both of them. She still knows, and so does Lucius, but they owe me and they will not give me away. I'm willing to bet all our lives on that."

"Pettigrew was staying here last summer," Harry pointed out, before grimacing. "Oh, gross. Where was he sleeping?"

"I wouldn't let him in the main house. There used to be a hidden room behind a bookshelf in the living room. After he had been living there for a while, I felt the need to destroy it. I'd never be able to use it again," he replied with an expression of acute distaste. "In any case, he isn't going to be a problem, believe me. He can't tell anyone."

"What's going to happen to the Malfoys?" Hermione asked. "Draco didn't do what he was supposed to. Will he be all right?"

"I think so," Severus replied, sounding a little doubtful. "He should be. He did succeed in getting everyone into the castle, and he at least appeared to be about to kill Dumbledore. And now that I have... resigned... Lucius is his only reliable lieutenant; Bellatrix is frankly insane. Narcissa can prove that she took my Vow, with her sister's aid, and that they had no knowledge of what I was planning. They should be fine, if they survive the Dark Lord's initial tantrum over my betrayal."

"How can you trust them?" Harry asked.

Severus regarded him steadily. "Lucius was the Slytherin prefect when I first went to school. I have known him since I was eleven, and Narcissa almost as long. I was at their wedding, and I was there when Draco was born. To you they are Death Eaters. To me, they are my friends. They know what I have done for their son, and what they owe me. I trust them. Is that acceptable to you?" he asked, with an edge to his voice that showed how tired he still was.

"You can't blame me," Harry retorted. "Since I first met Mr Malfoy, he's given a Horcrux to my girlfriend that almost killed her, put my friends in danger and nearly brought You-Know-Who back; almost got my friend's Hippogriff executed out of sheer spite; tormented some Muggles and nearly started a riot at the Quidditch World Cup, watched me be tortured in a graveyard and then tried to kill me and my friends over a prophecy."

After a moment Severus' lips twitched. "I admit you haven't seen him at his best," he said dryly, and looked amused as they stared at him. "Lucius is an arrogant, pompous idiot, as well as a ruthless bastard when he has to be, but he isn't a monster. He wants power and wealth because he enjoys it, but mostly he wants a better life for his wife and son. He dislikes Muggleborns because that increase in our population means less wealth and power to go around and because his family is very old and has tradition behind it; he doesn't truly believe them inferior. In fact he has spent the past couple of years complaining about Draco being outshone by a certain Muggleborn Gryffindor," he added, smirking a little. "He'll take the winning side, but he is hardly alone in wanting that. This isn't what he signed up for either. I doubt he'll mourn if we win, as long as Draco and Narcissa are safe."

"How many Death Eaters are there?" Ron asked. "Nobody's actually said."

"I don't know the exact numbers any more; hopefully some of them died yesterday," Severus said grimly. "I know for certain that I killed three, and we can hope more died of their injuries or were killed by Order members, but I don't know. There are – or were – eleven of us in the inner circle, at least until my defection. A step below them, there are approximately three dozen others who wear the Mark and do as they are told – they weren't all there last night, though. In the first war there were also usually a dozen or so new recruits being tested and trained, although not all of them made it, but he hasn't enlisted anyone except Draco this time..."

"Why not?"

"I don't know, and it doesn't matter. Those are the official Death Eaters, but there are many more followers who are not Marked. Low level and largely unimportant individually, but united... the Dark Lord has far more people than the Order, particularly if the infiltration of the Ministry is as successful as it was intended to be. Hence our underground war, rather than some glorious battle."

"That's... a little scary," Harry said quietly. "I never realised..."

"Yes, it is," Severus agreed softly, "which is why nobody told you before. Even most of the Order know less than half the story. My reports were never heard by most of them. That is also why I only told Minerva what is going on – the command structure functions best if only those at the top can make informed decisions, as sad as that is."

"Why did you tell Mum, then? She's not high ranking," Ron objected.

Severus smirked at him. "Not officially, no, but in reality even Mad-Eye never dared to argue with her. Besides, I have seen Molly Weasley in combat, in the first war. Don't underestimate her for a moment." Ron blinked and nodded a little uncertainly, and he looked around the kitchen. "I assume there are still more questions?"

"Well, yes," Hermione admitted. "I wanted to ask about Dumbledore. You said... you said the curse was affecting his brain. Are you – are you sure?"

He nodded grimly, his eyes darkening. "I've wondered for the past couple of months, but I was certain the night he told you about – about your mother, Potter. Well, no, it was a day or two later, once I could think straight, but nonetheless. Dumbledore is a petty, spiteful old buzzard when the mood takes him, but he's not stupid, and that was virtually suicide. To break his word to me in such a way would have driven me away from the Order for good under normal circumstances; it was completely and utterly irrational."

"Normal circumstances being...?" Harry asked, rather nervously.

Severus glared at him. "When you are genuinely being stupid, it is believable. When you are merely pretending to be stupid, it wouldn't fool a toddler. But since you brought the subject up, how much do you and Weasley know?" His voice had dropped to a growl. "Well?"

Both boys exchanged horrified looks before staring pleadingly at Hermione, begging for help. She looked uneasily at Severus' expression, which was rapidly approaching thunderous as his control of his temper started to slip at last, and admitted unhappily, "The Room of Requirement."

His black eyes flashed with absolute rage as he turned to stare at her furiously. "What?"

"It wasn't Hermione's fault," Harry said instantly, and unwisely. He went pale as Severus turned his glare on him, but kept going bravely. "We guessed something had happened and made her tell us. I – we've known for a little while, but she didn't choose to tell us."

He had the sense to shut up after that, and Severus transferred his glare to the wall, a muscle working in his jaw as he slowly made himself calm down. Finally he turned back and regarded Hermione rather coolly, raising one eyebrow slightly and waiting.

"I'm sorry," she told him quietly. "I didn't choose to tell them, but I did anyway when they asked. I needed someone to talk to. It wasn't... spite, or gossip. I wouldn't have let that happen."

He continued to look at her steadily for a long moment, before exhaling slowly and relaxing very slightly, dropping his gaze. "I see," he said finally.

"I really am sorry."

Severus nodded slightly. "I can't say I am overjoyed, but I suppose it does save having to explain it now. And I knew that Potter at least was aware of the situation after our little talk the afternoon he fought with Draco." He pinched the bridge of his nose and turned to glare at the boys warningly. "One word from either of you that I don't like, and I will drag you back to Headquarters by the scruff and leave you there to do as the grownups tell you. Is that clear?"


"Very well, then. Are there any further questions about the war?"

"What does... all of this have to do with the prophecy?" Harry asked, obviously relieved by the change of subject. "You haven't mentioned it."

"I don't know," Severus replied quietly. "I know a part of the prophecy, but I do not know it all, and I suspect that the part I do not know holds the final piece of the puzzle. I don't understand that aspect of the situation, so I am ignoring it for the moment to focus on what I do know."

"Where do you know it up to?" Harry asked. "I can tell you the rest."

Severus looked at him for a long moment with a slightly troubled expression, before a distant look entered his eyes and he stared at the wall, reciting slowly, "'The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches ... born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies.' That is all I know, and all the Dark Lord knows." He shrugged. "Whatever will come of it, Dumbledore never intended me to be a part of that stage anyway; neither of us thought I would live this long."

"You almost didn't," Hermione said quietly.

He turned and looked at her intently. "No. And that is a discussion for another day. I need to discuss that night with you eventually, but not yet." He looked back at Harry, who shrugged.

"Well, the rest of it goes, 'and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not ... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.' So I guess that's why Dumbledore picked me to deal with the Horcruxes, because I've got to kill him eventually. Or am I being arrogant again?" he asked, looking as though he wanted to be told that he was, that it meant something else.

Severus frowned. "That seems rather anticlimactic, given how secretive Dumbledore has always been about it. I was expecting something more... dramatic. Are you certain that was all of it?"

"Yeah. It repeats the bit about being born at the end of July, and then that's the end."

"Strange. Anyway, Potter, I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were you. I've told you before that it isn't reliable, and I don't see why it has to be you who deals the final blow; once the Horcruxes are all destroyed, he will be mortal, and anyone can kill him."

"Why does the prophecy say the Dark Lord?" Ron asked. "I thought only the Death Eaters called him that."

"Huh. Good question," Harry said.

They looked at Severus, who shrugged. "No idea. Trelawney certainly isn't a Death Eater – although that is an interesting mental image."

Hermione drew her wand from her belt, ending the conversation, and he raised an eyebrow at her. "Stop looking at me like that," she told him. "You're sitting off balance, hunching to one side, so you're obviously still hurt. Hold still." Unceremoniously she started to run through her diagnostic charms.

"I don't know what's weirder," Ron commented airily to the room at large, looking at Harry and grinning. "That she's bullying a teacher like that, or that he's letting her do it."

"He's not our teacher any more," Harry replied, grinning back. "Anyway, nobody can argue with Hermione when she's in this mood."

"Shut up, the pair of you," she told them absently, opening a rip in Severus' shirt to examine the deep cut in his side. He had obviously partially healed it himself yesterday or this morning; it was closed, but only just.

"Enough," Severus growled after a pause, shifting away from her. "There is nothing wrong with me that time won't heal, and I have a few questions of my own to ask before we rest." He sat back and blew out a breath. "What happened after I left the cave?" he asked.

They blinked at one another. "I forgot you didn't know," Hermione said apologetically. "It seems like weeks ago, rather than just yesterday."

He nodded. "Was the Horcrux destroyed?"

"It wasn't a Horcrux."

"What?" He looked utterly stunned, as well he might – and it wasn't really a happy thought to learn that they had gone through all that for nothing in return.

"Someone else got there first," Hermione explained. "I don't know if you really had time to see it, but it was Salazar Slytherin's locket. Or, rather, it wasn't. It had been replaced with a fake; it's about as magical as a prize from a Christmas cracker. There was a note inside it addressed to... You-Know-Who. Someone else knew about the Horcruxes and said they were going to try and destroy as many of them as possible before they were caught. Harry's got it now."

Severus rested his head in his hands and sighed heavily. "Damn. That complicates matters. We've no way of knowing if this person managed to destroy the real locket or not. Did Dumbledore say anything?"

"There wasn't really time," Harry said dryly, "what with the Inferi attack."

"The what?"

Hermione gave her friend an annoyed look; she hadn't planned to tell Severus everything. He had enough to think about as it was. "There were Inferi in the lake. They attacked when Harry and the Headmaster were getting out of the boat again. Dumbledore drove them back with Fiendfyre until we were past the blood spell. It wasn't a big deal." At the time she had been a nervous wreck, but after everything that had happened since then, it was difficult to care much.

"My, aren't we getting blasé about mortal peril," he said irritably. "In future, do share these little adventures with me, if you please. Was there anything else you've neglected to tell me?"

She glared at him. "Not really. After worrying myself sick the entire way back to the cliffs, we all Apparated back and were greeted with the sight of the Dark Mark hanging over Hogwarts and the whole village in a panic, and then enjoyed a lovely quiet walk to find out who was dead before walking into the Great Hall to see You-Know-Who waiting for us. It was quite uneventful, really."

His eyes hardened and he drew in a breath before evidently stopping himself from speaking. Turning away, he stood up and stalked off into the living room without another word, leaving Harry and Ron regarding their friend quizzically.

"Er, Hermione, what was that about?" Harry asked quietly. "It wasn't his fault. He had to go when V – er, You-Know-Who summoned him. We don't know who cast the Mark, but if it was him, he did it to warn people."

She sighed. "I know, but... you saw how terrified I was. The state he was in, he could have been killed."

"That's not his fault either." Ron grinned. "We kind of expect him to take things out on us, but it's not like you, you know."

"We're all a bit on edge," Harry said, shrugging. "I reckon he knows that, too – notice how he stopped himself from fighting back? Besides..." He grinned. "Hermione can probably get away with it. If it was either of us, he'd have killed us."

"That's true," Ron agreed before Hermione could say anything in response.

She glared at both of them helplessly, feeling a little ashamed of herself now, before getting up and heading rather apprehensively into the living room. "Severus?" she asked uncertainly.

He glanced up from where he sat on the edge of the makeshift cot. "Don't. It's fine."

"It's not. I'm sorry."

He snorted softly. "I think, on balance, you owe me far worse than that. Don't worry about it."

"It's because I was worried. That potion almost killed you even before everything went to hell."

Severus shook his head slowly. "Not quite. It wasn't a true poison. If it had been a normal meeting, I would have been hurt, yes – I wasn't in any fit state to keep myself together. And if he had tried Legilimency, I don't know if I could have held my shields, in which case I would have had to suicide. But, as it was... we were lucky."

After a long moment she said quietly, "You know, you really, really suck at being reassuring."

That earned her a glimpse of his familiar crooked smile. "As it happens, yes, I do know that."

"It's all been so – mad, the past couple of days. It's a lot to take in." She looked down at him and a brief spark of anger made it through the confusion. "You should have told me before."

His smile faded and he looked away. "I know."

"Do you have any idea what it would have done to me, to watch you murder the Headmaster with no idea why or what was happening?"

"I know, Hermione. I apologise." He stared at the worn carpet, his lank black hair falling forward to hide his expression. "I don't have an excuse – my reasons for not telling you were always a little flimsy. I simply didn't want to have to say it aloud. I didn't want to see your face when you heard."

The quiet admission took a lot of the heat out of her anger, and she came to sit beside him, not quite close enough to touch but close enough to feel him shivering fitfully. Her diagnostics a few minutes ago had showed that he was right, mostly all that was wrong was acute fatigue and a bit of shock; rest was all he needed.

"I'm sorry, too – for doubting you. When you Disarmed Dumbledore, and then looked at him like that... I really thought you were going to kill him. I do trust you, but I was so scared, and I couldn't think, and..."

He touched her hand without looking at her, resting his fingers over hers gently. "Don't apologise. I almost believed it myself, and I have been so angry with him for so many years that I very nearly did do it anyway. It was a close thing. You trust me more than I trust myself." He sighed, taking his hand away and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "We still need to talk privately, but I'm worn out..."

Tentatively she reached out and rested her hand on his back, between the sharp lines of his shoulder blades. "I know. I didn't expect anything just yet. We both need a bit of time to think, after everything that's just happened. I feel completely numb, and I'm tired as well. I'd rather wait until we're both more human." After a moment she asked far more lightly, "So what happens next?"

"I have no idea," he told her with what she suspected was complete honesty. He cocked his head to one side. "Well, right now, we need supplies. There is literally no food in the house, and not much of anything else; I didn't plan to return here."

"You should sleep again. Is it safe for any of us to go out, though?"

"Oh, yes, if you're careful and don't take too long. The Dark Lord doesn't even know which part of the country I live in, and in any case they will all assume we're at Headquarters – we shouldn't risk it after they've had time to organise themselves, but this once should be safe enough. There is a general shop nearby – go back to the main road and turn right, then right again and it's on the left. You and Potter may as well start showing Weasley how the Muggle world works. Here..." He stood up and led her into the hall, opening the small drawer in the little table by the door and handing her a bank card. "Don't go mad. I don't know how long we have to live off what's left in my account. The Order aren't in a position to lend us Muggle money, and we can't really go to the exchange in Gringotts either."

Hermione nodded, looking down at the card, a little surprised to see his real name on it. That must confuse the bank – there hadn't been a Muggle called Severus since the days of the Roman Empire, she suspected. "I owe you three hundred pounds, too," she said softly. "I haven't forgotten, but I can't get to my Muggle account. My card is in storage with my family's things – although I suppose I could always go there and get some of my stuff..."

"Don't be so absurd," he told her, with genuine scorn in his voice. "Now be off with you and take those two with you so I can have some peace."

"I really am sorry I told them..."

"Stop apologising, Hermione. I may never understand why on earth you are friends with them, but you are, and that's enough for me. I never imagined it would be possible to hide anything from them forever – although I had hoped," he added dryly. "I can understand needing to talk, too. It has all been... rather confusing. Just warn them not to be stupid – one joke, and I am likely to forget all my fine resolutions about not harming your friends and kill them both."

"Thank you. Do you want anything in particular from the shop?" She wasn't going to push the subject of money now, not when he looked so close to collapse, but she wasn't going to let it drop completely either.

"A couple of packs of cigarettes would be a good idea; I'm stressed enough as it is without trying to quit smoking on top of everything else, and I'm almost out. You know the ones I smoke, don't you?"

"Yes, but I don't have any ID."

He suppressed a soft laugh, his eyes glittering briefly. "Believe me, around here that couldn't possibly matter. This is not the kind of area where little things like laws have any sway. I've bought cigarettes and alcohol at that shop since I was thirteen."

Severus lay awake on the not very comfortable cot, listening to the distant sounds; Hermione and the boys had come back a little while ago. Thinking him asleep, they had eaten quietly and gone upstairs; he could hear the low murmur of voices now, and occasionally the creaking of the plumbing protesting. He was hungry – he hadn't eaten in twenty four hours – but he'd wait until they were asleep before moving.

It was strange, having them here – this had not been part of the plan. He had never intended coming back here, despite his statement about needing the defences – he still lived here purely because he couldn't be bothered to go anywhere else, and for no other reason. He absolutely hated this house and had no good memories of it at all, but if anything could change the atmosphere of neglected misery, those three could.

None of this had been part of the plan, though, because he hadn't had a plan. In the end, he'd just gone with his instincts, and rationalised it afterwards. His only real intention had been to buy them all some time before losing their leader, and to try and keep the death toll to a minimum and protect himself from the hellish fate that would have awaited him as Voldemort's Headmaster. So far, it seemed to have worked out far better than he could have hoped for; now they could work on what really mattered, unhindered by anyone else. And he and Hermione might eventually find time to talk, too. He would prefer it if Potter and Weasley weren't around, naturally, but perhaps their presence was actually a good thing – it would make it easier for him to behave himself, at least for a while, and that would help him focus on what they were meant to be doing.

It could have been worse. Time would tell whether or not things would work out, but he was almost – almost – optimistic.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 34 of 60

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